Are your staff feeling threatened?

Looming_Threat-784103Threat and reward are primary motivators; we avoid threats and we approach rewards. This becomes fundamental to understanding what is driving behaviour in the workplace.

Engagement is something that the employee has to offer – it is not part of their contract. A heightened emotional connection with an organisation influences employees to exert greater effort.

Science continues to develop their understanding of the impact that the brain has on leadership, culture and engagement. Of particular interest is that employees’ brains detect the ‘threat’ and ‘reward’ content of every experience, mostly subconsciously, causing them to behave in accordance with their assessment. 
In a ‘reward’ state, employees will demonstrate

  • Increased cognitive resources
  • Greater creativity
  • An ability to solve more problems (insight phenomenon) and more ideas for action; and
  • Have a wider field of perceptual view

In a ‘threat’ state, employees will demonstrate:

  • Fear, anxiety, lack of safety, depression
  • Lack of focus and attention, and so trust
  • Mental fatigue, which inhibits creative thinking – and have health implications
  • Withdrawal, passive/active aggression, cynicism and negativity

Applying David Rock’s SCARF model:  


Employees will feel threatened if employers:

  • sideline, demote, reprofile or redesignate employees
  • restructure teams/the organisation
  • introduce unfamiliar systems or processes

Employees will act more positively and be more engaged if employers:

  • obtain a sought-after promotion
  • receive public recognition
  • are called on for their subject matter expertise
  • are collaborated with appropriately


Uncertainty predisposes employees to see the threat in every scenario. Employees perceive threats when a situation involves:

  • change, including a change in priorities or focus
  • mixed messages
  • perceived negative future expectations, such as restructuring, financial stability); and
  • new technologies or processes.

These can be mitigated through

  • Acknowledging concerns and providing reassurance
  • Celebrating what has gone before and presenting a positive vision of the future
  • open communication
  • balancing the unknown with familiarity
  • introducing change in bite-sized chunks.


When workers have more autonomy to make decisions, the perceived threat in a situation is decreased. Employers should avoid telling workers what to do and how to do it, or over-ruling their decisions. Instead, they should

  • delegate decision making
  • provide options
  • seek and act on feedback.


Employees will perceive threats when their values are at odds with the organisational culture or when they are working in highly political/dysfunctional environments/teams, and when working in isolation.

Employee engagement between individuals and teams (and, so, the organisation) is greatly enhanced when employers facilitate connections between individuals, teams and management.


They will perceive threats in:

  • inconsistent behaviour
  • policies or procedures that are not applied equally or as stated
  • apparent bias or favouritism (this includes lack of sanction where perceived by colleagues to be appropriate)
  • workplace bullying
  • unearned rewards.

What can be done? Well, rewards take the form of transparency, involvement, living the values, equality, and merit selection and promotion.

What are you going to do?

What can you do as a leader to ensure that your staff trust and engage with your organisation?

  • Ensure that the performance management and recruitment process is transparent and equitable
  • Develop managers’ capabilities to ensure that they are even aware of staffs’ potential reactions, and so hold constructive conversations;
  • consider holistic learning experiences and meditation that tap into how the brain learns and stores information;
  • use coaching methods that tap into autonomy and self-directed learning;
  • Celebrate/communicate promotions/successes.
  • When taking temperature checks, make sure staff questionnaires incorporate the SCARF model.

Teardrop Explodes: Reward

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