Managing projects with the brain in mind

the neuroscience of leadership


To lead change is a tremendous challenge. The more we understand how people deal with change, the more we can manage our projects effectively. The latest research on how the brain works is bringing a fresh perspective on how to effectively lead teams and overcome the challenges of resistance to change. Although we tend to think of project work in terms of tasks, activities, and resources, the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system. Researchers found that the brain’s physiological and neurological reactions are directly shaped by social interaction.

Dr. David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, says that research into the social nature of the brain suggests that there are five social qualities that drive human behavior (Rock, 2009) and these are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Understanding these five social qualities can explain how individuals approach new situations and why people find change so challenging. It helps us understand the individual capacity to cope with ambiguity, deal with conflict, and find innovative solutions to complex problems. Neuroscience research is also validating why some common project management practices work well, such as how ownership results in commitment and engagement. It also shows how other common practices don’t work, such as feedback, threats, and punishment.

This presentation will enhance the project manager’s understanding of the latest findings in neuroscience research on leadership and their implications for project management. It will explore some of these research findings and how they can be used to help stimulate innovation and creativity, overcome conflict and resistance to change, and create an environment that fosters engagement and commitment in projects.


Organizations in every sector of the economy are facing unprecedented change due to a rapidly expanding marketplace, globalization, and increased competition. Organizations are realizing that, if they cannot adapt, they will find themselves becoming increasingly irrelevant and disappearing all together.

Project managers play a crucial role here. A core skill that organizations are looking for in their project managers today is the capacity to lead and manage change in a way that takes into account and respects the people affected. Too many change projects struggle, fall short, or completely fail, because the technical and procedural aspects of the change initiative take the highest priority while the human aspects are neglected.

To succeed, project managers must understand the behaviors, attitudes, and motivations of those involved in a change initiative. They must also have the skills to prepare their organization for change, anticipate push-back and resistance, and develop the conditions needed for change to take root with minimal disruption to the organization.

Neuroscience is deepening our understanding of how human beings respond to change, and how project managers can use this science to their advantage in change leadership. It provides a framework through which we can scan our environment to identify the barriers to collaboration and resistance to change.

This paper explores the recent findings in the field of neuroscience and neuroleadership and their implications for project managers.

Why Neuroscience Matters to Project Managers

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. It is an interdisciplinary science that collaborates with other fields such as chemistry, computer science, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, and psychology. The field has seen significant advances in recent years, which can be largely attributed to very recent scientific and technological advances, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which allows researchers to literally watch the brain in action.

NeuroLeadership is a term coined in 2006 by Dr. David Rock, who co-founded the Neuroleadership Institute in 2006. It is an emerging field of study, focused on bringing neuroscience knowledge into the areas of leadership development, management training, and change management.

Two recent developments in neuroscience have shed a new light on how individuals collaborate and deal with change and, therefore, how project managers create conditions to foster both.


Until recently, the brain was considered to be “static.” After an initial phase of development, the nervous system was thought to be complete and relatively fixed. Recent neuroscience research has proved that the brain has the ability to actually change itself physically. This ability to change itself is called “neuroplasticity.” Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, explains that “Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons to forge new connections, to blaze new paths through the cortex, and even to assume new roles. In shorthand, neuroplasticity means rewiring the brain.” (Schwartz, 2002)

This discovery has a major implication for leading change. The brain is in fact predisposed to changing and adapting. The challenge for project managers is to understand how new information and change are perceived and processed by our brains. Armed with this information, we have the tools to create conditions that are conducive to change, in which stakeholders not only support change but want to change.

Threat/Reward Response Triggers

Dr. David Rock writes, “much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward (Gordon, 2000) . . . [and] several domains of social experience draw upon the same brain networks to maximize reward and minimize threat as the brain networks used for primary survival needs (Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2008). In other words, social needs are treated in much the same way in the brain as the need for food and water.” (Rock, 2008)

To understand how the brain processes perceived threat and reward, we need to be familiar with the limbic system, often referred to as the “emotional brain,” and the prefrontal cortex (Exhibit 1), which is responsible for executive functions such as taking new information, solving problems, making decisions, and prioritizing.

Prefrontal Cortex and Limbic System

Exhibit 1 – Prefrontal Cortex and Limbic System

The limbic system is always on alert looking for threats and rewards. When it perceives a threat from information processed in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), it becomes aroused. In this state of fight or flight, energy and resources are taken away from the prefrontal cortex. Rock explains “The result is literally less oxygen and glucose available for the brain functions involved in working memory, which impacts linear, conscious processing.” (Rock, 2008) Therefore, starving the prefrontal cortex limits our capacity to solve complex problems and we are more likely to make mistakes.

The challenge and implication for project managers is to understand how the fundamental principle of the threat/reward response affects our capacity to make decisions, solve problems, collaborate with others, and facilitate change.

The SCARF model summarizes these two themes within a framework that captures the five common factors that activate a reward or threat response and therefore underpin individual and team behaviors within projects.


Neuroscientists have identified the five major threats and rewards, and Rock, who for many years has been exploring the field of neuroscience and its implications for leadership, explains these in the SCARF model as (Rock, 2008):

  • Status - our perceived status in relation to others
  • Certainty - the extent to which we feel we can predict the future
  • Autonomy - our perception of having a choice/options
  • Relatedness – how we relate to others and see them as friends or foes
  • Fairness – how we perceive an exchange as fair or not


Status is about an individual’s sense of importance in the social pecking order. Whether it is about experience, seniority, or expertise, our brains constantly monitor and compare our status relative to others and send signals of threat or reward based on their assessment of changes in our ranking. Much of this happens unconsciously. Rock cites the work of Michael Marmot, whose research suggests that status is “the most significant determinant of human longevity and health, even when controlling for education and income.” (Rock, 2009)

An increase in status brings out a reward response, whereas a decrease in status triggers a threat response. To the brain, it is not important whether the threat is real or not. The response is the same. We experience an increase in status anytime we are acknowledged for our efforts, recognized for our expertise, or compared favorably with others. On the other hand, a threat response from a perceived change in status can be triggered even from a simple offer of advice or feedback. This means that a project manager must be extremely careful when providing feedback to team members that may potentially be perceived as a threat to a project team member’s status.

A change in status, positive or negative, will immediately get noticed by the brain. If a threat is perceived, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin are released, and the resulting behavior may include:

  • avoidance or withdrawal
  • passive aggression
  • active aggression
  • cynicism, negativity, or sarcasm

Examples of factors that trigger a status threat response:

  • Giving advice or instructions
  • Giving critical feedback
  • Leaving people out of activities
  • Reducing power in the role
  • Being sidelined or demoted
  • Public humiliation
  • Having to learn new skills or move to a new role that make you feel less competent

Examples of factors that trigger a status reward response:

  • Asking people to assess their own performance
  • Giving positive feedback in public
  • Creating learning and growth opportunities
  • Being selected for a career-enhancing role on a project or to solve critical problems
  • Being sought after to serve on high visibility projects
  • Being called on as a subject matter expert


Certainty is about the extent to which a person can predict the future. The brain likes to predict outcomes. When we feel a sense of certainty, our brain operates much more efficiently because it can sense patterns and successfully predict the next steps. Certainty is important to the brain because it enables it to conserve energy in its effort to minimize the use of the limited capacity of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function. Rock explains “The brain likes to know the pattern occurring moment to moment; it craves certainty, so that prediction is possible. Without prediction, the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience.” (Rock, 2008)

A sense of uncertainty about the future triggers a strong threat or “'alert” response in our limbic system. Rock explains that “uncertainty registers (in a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex) as an error, gap, or tension: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again. That is why people crave certainty” (Rock, 2008); when the brain detects such an error, its ability to focus on other issues decreases.

Understanding the reward response to certainty and the threat response to uncertainty can help us appreciate why change is difficult. As we lead change, increasing a sense of certainty can help overcome push-back and resistance to change. Sharing plans and including stakeholders in the early phases of a change initiative can help increase certainty for those impacted. In any effective change management program, all information relevant to those affected needs to be transparent, timely, and frequent. Explaining the change and possible outcomes as soon as the information is received will reduce uncertainty and promote trust.

Examples of factors that trigger a certainty threat response:

  • Change in any form
  • Shifting goal posts, priorities, focus
  • Mixed messages
  • Job insecurity (e.g., downsizing/restructures)
  • New technologies or processes with inadequate training
  • Lack of information about the future
  • Unpredictable management behavior

Examples of factors that trigger a certainty reward response:

  • Reassurance
  • Positive future expectations
  • Open communication
  • Balance the unknown with familiarity
  • Change in manageable amounts
  • Set expectations
  • Lay out plans, timelines, and break down tasks


Autonomy is about choice. It is the perception of exerting personal influence and control over our environment. The more choices we have, the more in control of our environment we feel, and, as a result, the more autonomy we experience.

The perception of being able to control the course of events, exercise choice, and drive decisions all lead to an increased sense of autonomy. On the other hand, a lack of control over our working environment and inability to influence outcomes generate a threat response.

A perception of “choice,” however small, seems to make a difference to the brain (Rock, 2009b, p. 125). Another interesting aspect of autonomy is that an increase in autonomy can create a sense of certainty about the future and can result in a sense if increased status.

To create a sense of autonomy, project managers need to ensure that project team members and stakeholders are involved as early as possible in the planning for change initiative. Participating in the early planning phases, having a say in decisions, and getting the opportunity to choose between options create a sense of empowerment and can lead to greater engagement and buy-in.

Examples of factors that trigger an autonomy threat response include:

  • Being told what to do and how to do it
  • Being over-ruled on decisions
  • Having your authority undermined
  • Being micromanaged
  • Having to follow orders and mandates

Examples of factors that trigger an autonomy reward response include:

  • Delegating decision making
  • Seeking, and acting on, feedback
  • Offering people options to choose from
  • Setting high level vision and direction and defining details as a team
  • Setting clear guidelines that allow personal judgments to be made within the guidelines


Relatedness is about an individual’s perceived sense of belonging, and how that person determines whether someone is on the team or not (i.e., a friend or foe). Rock explains “once people make a stronger social connection, their brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin in one another’s presence. This chemical, which has been linked with affection, maternal behavior, sexual arousal, and generosity, disarms the threat response and further activates the neural networks that permit us to perceive someone as ‘just like us’.” (Rock, 2009)

We want to be part of a team, group, or even tribe. Quality social connection is important to trust and collaboration. When team members are able to relate to one another – striving toward the same goals, being on the same page – trust can develop, setting a foundation for a collaborative, inclusive, and safe environment.

When we feel that we are outside a team, our brain will experience this as a threat. Project managers need to watch the degree of relatedness in their project teams. When they begin to detect a person withdrawing from the group or the group creating an outcast, this can have a serious impact on the team’s performance. For example, socializing and team-building exercises can be used to create conditions for relatedness when building new teams.

Here are some tips to increase relatedness:

  • Encourage mentoring and coaching relationships
  • Take the time to understand people and really hear what they are saying. As a project manager, it’s important to ensure that your team members see you as someone who is on their side.
  • Take advantage of existing social structures in your organization, which can offer opportunities to increase relatedness and connection.

Examples of factors that trigger a relatedness threat response include:

  • Your values are not aligned with the organizational culture
  • Highly political environments
  • Dysfunctional team behaviors
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness

Examples of factors that trigger a relatedness reward response include:

  • Positive, constructive workplace relationships
  • Practices that encourage interpersonal connections
  • Team play and opportunities to socialize with members of the team
  • Empathy and understanding


An exchange that the brain perceives as unfair triggers primary threat and reward mechanisms. Unfairness triggers intense brain reactions and is provoked easily. Rock writes “The perception that an event has been unfair generates a strong response in the limbic system, stirring hostility and undermining trust. As with status, people perceive fairness in relative terms, feeling more satisfied with a fair exchange that offers a minimal reward than an unfair exchange in which the reward is substantial.” (Rock, 2008)

Project managers need to watch the “rules” they set for some project team members over others, such as when setting deadlines or expectations of deliverables quality or when holding team members accountable. Setting ground rules in a transparent manner and following them consistently will help project team members get a sense that everyone on the project is being treated equally and fairly.

There is nothing more de-motivating to a project team member than a perceived sense of being treated unfairly. An example would be blaming a project team member for a schedule delay, over which he or she had no control. This can trigger a strong threat response, especially if the delay is significant and causes the project team member to feel or be seen as less competent. In this example, the project team member may also experience a threat to his or her status. A feeling of being treated unfairly can trigger a strong response, which can range from defensiveness to avoidance and withdrawal or to passive-aggressive behavior.

Examples of factors that trigger a fairness threat response include:

  • Inconsistent behavior
  • Policies or procedures applied inequitably
  • Perception of bias or favoritism
  • Workplace bullying
  • Unearned rewards
  • Unclear expectations
  • Uneven workload distribution
  • Lack of transparency

Examples of factors that trigger a fairness reward response include:

  • Transparency
  • Involvement
  • Equality
  • Selection and promotion based on merit
  • Establish and follow clear rules consistently
  • Be as transparent as possible about how and why decisions are made


This perspective on collaboration and change management may not be new. What is new, however, is that now we have the scientific evidence that explains why these factors are the ones that need to be managed. Conflict within a project team can get intensified and magnified with time. At first, a conflict between two project team members may appear to be a personality conflict. Using the SCARF framework, a project manager can investigate deeper causes related to SCARF elements. Even though an issue may initially appear on the surface to be unrelated to SCARF’s five social domains, using the framework can lead to discovering whether or not a threat is perceived or real. Armed with this information, the project manager can design better interventions.

Combining the elements of the SCARF framework can offer the project manager a common language to engage his or her team members and stakeholders at a more profound level when discussing difficult issues. The framework provides another way through which the project manager can try to make sense of the issues that surface in his or her projects and the sources generating stress and anxiety for him or her in the first place.

People resist loss, not change. Resistance to change may be caused by feared changes in Status, Control, Autonomy, Relatedness, or Fairness. The SCARF model can be used to diagnose the root cause of the resistance to change. Once the real fear is identified, the project manager can design the proper approach to addressing it.

With an understanding of the five domains of the SCARF model, imagine the differences in the outcomes of the following scenarios:

  • You project is falling behind schedule. Stress and anxiety are high and your team members are fighting and blaming each other instead of working together to find a solution. What do you need to take care of so that the domains of SCARF (in particular status, certainty, and relatedness) are well managed to bringing the project back on track?
  • A project team member is consistently not meeting his deadlines and as a result causes the entire team to work late to meet their deadlines. How do you manage this situation without triggering a threat response around fairness and status in the rest of the team?
  • Due to the economic conditions, your company just announced a re-organization that will take place over the next three months. There is also a possibility of layoffs. Everyone on your team is stressed and anxious. How would you facilitate a team meeting using the elements of SCARF that leaves the project team feeling motivated and engaged?

Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal (8)1, 1–9.

Rock, D. (2009). Managing with the brain in mind. Strategy + Business Magazine, Autumn 2009

Rock, D. (2009b). Managing with the brain in mind. Strategy + business magazine, Autumn 2009

Schwartz, J.M. (2002). The mind and the brain. New York, NY: Harper Collins

© 2011, Samad Aidane
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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