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Tim Cynova Post by Tim Cynova

By Tim Cynova on June 6th, 2017

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5 Ways You’re Flipping Fight or Flight Switches

Big Ideas | How We Work | Change Management | People Operations | Human Resources

The Magic of SCARF


Image by  herryway

When was the last time you felt the Fight or Flight urge?

Were you trapped on stage as a speaker droned on well past their allotted time? Was a donor giving you an earful about how you “screwed up their entire gala experience because they couldn’t have bottle service for their table”? Or, had you just received an email from your supervisor with those four dreaded words … We … need … to … talk.

When we feel the fight or flight urge, it doesn’t just come from nowhere. The amygdala in our brain senses danger and floods our body with adrenaline. Whether we’re trapped by a person droning on, someone demanding bottle service, or we turn our head to discover a lion standing right next to us, our brain can’t tell the difference between the dangers, so it signals the rush of adrenaline, figuring, we can sort out the details later… if there is a later.

Change initiatives are excellent opportunities to trigger the human “fight or flight” instinct. Someone says or does something — intentional or not — and we’re quickly flooded with adrenaline and negative emotions. God help us if we can muster a clear, coherent thought that doesn’t make matters worse.

When we attempt to change anything, particularly in the workplace, and we’re inundated with people’s angst, anxiety, stress, hurt feelings, frustration — and meetings to discuss all of these things — there’s a magical acronym called SCARF that can decode why much of the work we do around change initiatives is less about the thing we’re actually changing, and more about people’s reaction to the change.

David Rock coined SCARF — which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness — and it’s a handy tool to help identify what’s going on behind the scenes so we have a better chance of addressing the cause, not merely the symptoms.



When we feel like our status is jeopardized it can trip the fight or flight switch. Think, “I’ve worked for years to get the choice desk by the window or the private office, and now I’m losing it in exchange for an unassigned desk, laptop and locker, just like the person who started yesterday.” … Or, “I’ve been here for years working my way up to 20 vacation days a year, and my organization just nixed that structure for unlimited vacation days?” People objectively have more vacation days to use each year, but so does everyone else now, even the person who started yesterday. Or, “I used to be a part of that decision-making group but the company restructured and now I’m not.”


We’re creatures of habit. I like to eat the same thing for breakfast every day, sit at this desk, and know that everything is in exactly the same place where I left it yesterday. It’s comforting. When processes or procedures change — things that have become second nature that we don’t have to think about them — and then suddenly, oh, we’re not using that tool to track projects? We’re using this new one that I now need to learn? Oh, I can’t sit here anymore? And the bagel place closed?!


When change initiatives don’t ask or include those impacted, we risk flipping the switch. You have no say where you sit, what the office looks like, what the vacation day policy is, or whether you use a Mac or PC. Flip, flip, flip, flip.

It’s important to note that people can in fact be given lots of opportunities to weigh in; however, if they don’t feel like they were given sufficient opportunities, you still risk flipping this switch.


This is about our relationship to each other. “I’ve sat with the same group of people for years and now I can’t!? It’s going to change the entire way I work!”

Relatedness is perhaps the biggest threat to change initiatives and building stronger teams and organizations. We hesitate to say anything that could threaten our relationships in favor of maintaining them.

We get better at identifying what causes conflict, and avoiding it, rather than getting better at engaging in healthy conflict. The longer we do this and just let the inertia of the status quo exist, the more comfortable we become and the harder it is for people, teams, and organizations to change.


If people feel like things aren’t fair or equitable, we risk flipping the switch. “Everyone in my group gets a dedicated seat, except for me?” “Everyone in my group got a bonus, except for me? Just because?!”

There’s an additional warning here: this might not be the case at all, but if that’s how it’s perceived… flip away.

Discovering the SCARF acronym during the lead up to our office renovation at Fractured Atlas was a revelation. This acronym explained, in a nutshell, why my days were wall-to-wall with meetings to discuss everything surrounding the renovation except, in fact, the actual renovation. It was another important reminder that change initiatives are rarely about the actual thing you’re changing.

Hopefully this provides you with a tool to help identify the rough patches, and why they’re there, before you end up in the thick of it all. If you’re looking for the tools to help you navigate them, I encourage you to check out Fierce Conversations or Crucial Conversations for additional skill development.

And there you have it: SCARF. Godspeed.

More posts by Tim Cynova

About Tim Cynova

Tim wears a multitude of hats, all in service of creating anti-racist workplaces where people can thrive. He currently is co-CEO of Fractured Atlas (an entirely virtual organization with staff spread across multiple states and countries) and a Principal of the consulting group Work. Shouldn't. Suck. He serves on the faculty of Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and The New School teaching courses in People-Centric Organizational Design; he's a trained mediator, and a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR). Earlier in his career, Tim was the Executive Director of The Parsons Dance Company and of High 5 Tickets to the Arts in New York City, had a memorable stint with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, was a one-time classical trombonist, musicologist, and for five years in his youth he delivered newspapers for the Evansville, Indiana Courier-Press. Also, during a particularly slow summer, he bicycled 3,902 miles across the United States.