The recent advances in neuroscience and the insightful and informed writing of people like David Rock in "Your Brain at Work" have brought a new focus to business life. David’s work includes the collating and summarising of original research into the function and implications of the limbic system.

His SCARF model is a simple but profoundly important illustration of what happens when our limbic system kicks in and rationality takes a back seat.

SCARF is an acronym for five sources of potential pain or perceived gain – the limbic "hot buttons". We don’t all have them in equal strength but one or more of them can be pressed by situations where things go well or our personal version of disaster looms and we "go limbic".

Status – When the airline tells you you’ve been upgraded it’s only a better seat and more choices on the menu. But it’s what that upgrade means to you that’s important. Your status button just got positively pressed and you feel good. Flip the situation to where you are told you can’t come in the lounge because you booked a cheap ticket and you’ll definitely feel the negative side.

Certainty – The captain says "I’m afraid there’s a technical problem and we’ll be here some time before we take off". For some people, the next hour is dominated by the worry about whether they’ll make their connections, or even make it home. The reassuring "We’ll make up the lost time en route" will restore the calm with a positive press on that button.

Autonomy – Making our own decisions and doing things your way – feeling trusted to do the right thing is a positive press. Being told (for the thousandth time) to take your shoes, jacket, belt, watch off and being handled like cattle in the line waiting to be frisked by security will almost guarantee a negative press on this button.

Relationship – As social animals we all, to a certain degree, want a connection with others. The staff using our name on the flight establishes a relationship connection – and maybe even builds loyalty to that airline. All regular business travellers can recount the opposite – when the cabin crew seemed only interested in each other and the passengers were an interruption to their social club.

Fairness – Of all the buttons, this seems to be the one that causes the most upset for the business traveller. Standing in line is fine until someone else jumps the queue. Baggage allowances and baggage fees are OK until someone is allowed to "get away with it". On the positive side we seem to be relaxed even with inconvenience if everyone is feeling the same level of discomfort. If no-one’s getting coffee or a meal that’s a shame but tolerable.

Understanding these limbic buttons and how they affect you may not make business travel any easier – but it can at least help you to explain to loved ones why it’s not the luxury they imagine it to be.

Clive Hook
Programme Director at ClearWorth

Clive works for ClearWorth a company specialising in bespoke leader, team and organisation development and works all over the world from London to Lagos, Ohio to Oman, Helsinki to Hyderabad, Surrey to Sakhalin, Torino to Toronto – to date he has worked in 30 countries – and counting.