A new field has emerged within the ever more influential neuroscience arena: the study of NeuroLeadership – the discipline exploring the application of neuroscience to leadership. One of my key insights from completing a Certificate in the Foundations of NeuroLeadership is on the importance of the social brain. In traditional models such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs physical needs were considered to be primary. Social needs could only be fulfilled once primary physiological and safety needs had been satisfied. Yet the brain has a different take on this. It does not distinguish between physical and social pain and pleasure: social exclusion activates the same neurological networks as physical pain (Dorsal Anterior Cingulate, Anterior Insula) which interestingly is the reason that the pharmacological treatment of physical pain, e.g. morphine, can also alleviate social pain, while anti-depressants have been shown to dampen physical pain.

Social feelings are as real to us as our physical sensations and subject to the same overriding principle of all behaviour: to minimise threat and maximise reward. The implications of these findings for a corporate environment are immense.

In a hard-nosed business context managing and influencing people and dealing with “human resources” can no longer be treated as non-essential and frowned upon “soft skills” but need to be recognised as vital characteristics of successful leadership. In the words of consulting psychologist and emotional intelligence expert Dr Martyn Newman “Relationships represent a unique strategic asset and are the primary source of emotional capital in a business. Managing them well is critical for building real competitive advantage in your business”1.

The most useful model I have found of applying these insights to leadership is David Rock’s brain-based SCARF Model2.  Successful leaders intuitively understand that in order to bring out the best in their workforce they need to put people in a “toward” state to “maximise reward” in five key areas:

1.    STATUS – people’s place in the social hierarchy3

2.    CERTAINTY – people’s need to make predictions4

3.    AUTONOMY – a sense of control/choice5

4.    RELATEDNESS – social belonging6

5.    FAIRNESS – people’s innate need for fairness7

As a “Money&Meaning Coach” I work with finance professionals to explore potential conflicts between money earned and perceived meaningfulness. The SCARF Model has provided me with a yardstick to measure the elusive notion of meaning, making it applicable to a financial institution. My two key insights are that for banking executives A. ‘money’ is not intrinsically but socially meaningful and B. ‘meaning’ is defined primarily in social rather than material or philosophical terms.

Each of the five SCARF domains is of huge importance to the clients I have worked with. Moreover, I would go so far as to claim that each of the five domains contributes a substantial piece to how meaningful they perceive their work to be.

In response to a questionnaire bankers on average rated the meaningfulness of their work between 5 and 6 out of 10. As transpired in subsequent coaching conversations, by and large, they did not consider their work to merit a higher meaning score due to the absence of intrinsically “meaningful” human values.

However, when asked to pinpoint which elements made their work meaningful to them many listed variations on the theme of Autonomy: the more freedom these professionals enjoyed, the higher their meaningfulness rating! In many cases, Autonomy manifests itself in the privilege to contribute to the bigger picture: the growth of the company, its strategic direction or some control over its risk-reward profile. Significantly, these professionals reported the highest scores in terms of their work’s meaning. It seems that for bankers, Autonomy is one of the most meaningful parameters to have.

When asked what constituents of meaning they would like to have more of all interviewees expressed the desire for more of the SCARF factors rather than providing “other” criteria: this model neatly sums up the key meaning-giving factors of work for bankers.

It was staggering to see how many times Fairness was ranked number one. It seems that there is still some way to go to ensure that perceived Fairness reigns in the banking profession. In line with neuroscientific insights, the examples listed (mainly of a blame culture or lacking recognition for achievements) did not pertain to anything material8.

Relatedness also featured strongly among participants, in keeping with the common denominator in their answers indicating that people management (aka office politics) was one of their biggest challenges at work. The brain’s need for social inclusion and positive collaboration is as palpable in the competitive world of banking as anywhere else. Money is valued by my clients not as an aim in itself but for the symbolic and practical significance it has: granting a sense of security in the absence of a truly secure workplace, and enabling people to finance a comfortable lifestyle with the freedom to enjoy their hobbies. Ultimately, money is about Certainty and Autonomy.

Furthermore, unlike other sectors the Finance Sector relies (almost) exclusively on the monetary reward system to measure contribution and confer Status on its employees. A banker’s bonus is the ultimate expression of performance-related pay and becomes the annual focus of every banker’s attention – the symbol of his success. Rather than an end in itself money is the main currency bankers have to validate their own Status and ensure Fairness. Covering four of the five social domains of the SCARF Model money is heavily endowed with social meaning.

To conclude: in addition to elucidating how money itself can be socially meaningful, social cognitive neuroscience can help bankers understand what ‘meaning’ beyond money can signify and how it can be increased in the context of a profit-oriented culture.


1. Emotional Capitalists – The New Leaders (2007)

2. Your Brain at Work (2009)

3. Status has been shown to be a critical factor in general health and survival (Marmot, 2005, Sapolsky, 2002)

4. The brain is a “prediction machine” (Schultz et al, 1997). Uncertainty arouses the limbic system leading to a threat response (Whalen, 1998).

5. The perception of choice/control dramatically impacts stress levels (Leotti, Iyengar & Ochsner, 2010).

6. We have a fundamental need to belong and be accepted. Unless proven otherwise, the brain categorises others as “foe” (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008; Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

7. Brain regions associated with primary rewards are active when people receive fair offers compared to unfair offers of equal value (Tabibnia et al, 2008)

8. “…the brain’s reward system, particularly the ventral striatum, reacts as strongly to social rewards in the form of social recognition as it does to one of the most ubiquitous human rewards – money.” (Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2008)

Originally posted on Training Journal Website