Change is difficult, and it has a lot to do with how our brains are wired. We have a very old part of our brain, hardwired to rely on patterns for survival and working constantly to be able to reliably anticipate the future. This ancient part of us is continually scanning, noting all changes and determining whether or not they pose a threat. When a familiar pattern is disrupted, the brain is disrupted, becoming stimulated and vigilant. You can think of it as the “lizard” brain.
This automatic analysis is actually a very useful function, but it is also important to realize that all change triggers it, including social changes. Inattention to the interpersonal dynamics of change can have huge consequences for teams.
The key social dynamics that are always re-analyzed with every change are:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Or “SCARF”, a model pioneered by David Rock. When people address these areas within a group, change is much easier to handle. When people don’t address these dynamics during the process of change, everyone continues to be disrupted much longer. Power struggles, fear, and discomfort are more likely to persist as everyone tries to figure out the new pattern.

How long do you want your people disrupted by change? How do you avoid getting “SCARFed”? Align the interpersonal so that your people don’t get stuck. When you buffer these dynamics, people accept change.

Take, for example, a reorganization within an office. When a new leader comes in, it disrupts the certainty of roles and the previously understood interpersonal dynamics of status within the team. How will everyone relate to this new person? How will it shift the culture of the team? The new leader will undoubtedly introduce some new methods and habits. Teams can buffer this by intentionally creating relatedness.
I worked with a team recently to onboard (or you could say, “reboard”) a boss that had been out on a medical leave for five months. The boss could have tried to simply return as if nothing had happened, but the team would not have returned to its high functioning state as quickly if the disruption were not addressed.
The team had been forced by the original leave of absence to suddenly reorganize itself, and had been self-managing for months during this hiatus. In this time, the certainty, autonomy, and status of team members had been altered. The dynamics had changed. Many people were jockeying for power, undermining each other at times, and new people had been hired. Different patterns had been established while the boss was on leave.
In this case the plan was simple, but powerful. I identified the dynamics at play and sought to increase the relatedness of the team by bringing everyone in from around the country to meet in person. We flew people in to reset the relatedness and reaffirm the team dynamic. We started with stories about when they had been high performing. This anchored their brains in positive times, it recalled elements of a high-functioning pattern, and allowed people to reflect, connect and integrate new changes into a new pattern.
They were able to use the relatedness developed at the retreat as a bridge to create their new plans and patterns for the coming year.

It is an all-too common mistake to assume things will automatically reset to a previous pattern, or automatically adjust to a new pattern, but it is undoubtedly a mistake. Acknowledging this kind of change, and addressing the dynamics within the SCARF model, helps people reconnect and reorganize. It helps people establish the new pattern.