The SCARF in Global Mobility

dog in scarfIn my last blog post I wrote about social neuroscience and the SCARF theory, which explains social behavior based on our brain principle known as ‘threat and reward response’. The theory posits that within social interactions our experience is influenced either by perceived threat or reward in one or several of five domains: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

As mentioned at the end of my post, the theory is very practical and seems to be highly applicable also to the world of global mobility. Indeed, considering an assignee’s relocation experience, we can easily assume all of these domains being potentially under threat. Going to a new country with a lack of knowledge about local practices, no established social circle, and the challenges of transitioning into a new job placement, it is quite likely that status, certainty, and relatedness will be under threat. Will my new colleagues accept me? What if the project does not go well? Will my family manage without language skills? What if we cannot make any good friends? Moreover, being dependent on the company’s relocation package and arrangements (e.g. in terms of housing and home leaves), the assignee might feel a lack of autonomy, and fairness judgments can also be questionable. Why is my housing arrangement taking so long? Is this hardship allowance fair? Why is my compensation package smaller than for other assignees? Is my company helping enough with my child’s schooling?

Naturally, relocation to another country cannot be as smooth and stress-free as staying at home, yet, I fully agree with Jon Harman’s point that even given all the difficulties, ‘we can do better’. Indeed, Dr. Rock’s theory provides a practical framework for improving expats’ experiences. In essence, what global mobility professionals could strive for is minimizing the threats and increasing the rewards within the domains of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Let’s look at some of the options.

Status. It is fairly easy to threaten someone’s status through giving negative feedback, or insufficient positive feedback. Hence, managers who are more attentive to personal development of their employees, and take time to praise, acknowledge and give positive feedback can reward Status needs. I would draw a line here with Ryan and Deci’s Self-determination theory, which emphasizes the need for competence for being motivated. Feeling competent is about feeling good at what you do, which should definitely help in sustaining positive perceptions of personal status. As such, the threat to status, or feeling ‘worse than others’ and incompetent, may be minimized also through the assignment selection process by matching assignee skills and competencies with the assignment needs and goals.

Certainty. It is natural that any change creates uncertainty; yet, providing more clarity and information can decrease it. In terms of expatriation, for example clear career progression and repatriation plans can be very helpful. Uncertainties in terms of future colleagues and the host location can be reduced through pre-arrival visits, mentoring, induction programs, realistic job previews, etc.

Autonomy. Again, in line with self-determination theory, autonomy is all about having choice. For example, expatriates may be granted more autonomy already at the moment of deciding upon their assignment location (e.g., in terms of commuting possibilities between the work place and the new home to sustain better family balance in the host city), the type of assignment or housing arrangements. Also, higher responsibility, independence, and less control in terms of the expatriate’s activity on site can be helpful.

Relatedness. Loneliness and social isolation are fairly pronounced for global employees. If you have ever relocated yourself either for work or studies, this phenomenon is not difficult to imagine. In general, I believe all of us have felt lonely at one or another time in our lives. I would argue that this might be one of the primary needs to be addressed by the global mobility function. Relocation professionals may target this need when working on supporting employees throughout the adjustment process, and making sure assignees feel valued, integrated and accepted in the host location.

Fairness. A sense of unfairness is fast to emerge in any situation that lacks clarity about the ground rules, expectations, performance indicators, assessment methods and reward metrics. In global mobility, these threats can be decreased and fairness can be rewarded by more transparency, clear policies and procedures, and, last but not least, more and better communication.

All in all, metaphorically speaking, in global mobility we shouldn’t let any assignee relocate without a SCARF. Indeed,  we should rather try to provide them with the best SCARF possible 🙂

10 thoughts on “The SCARF in Global Mobility

  1. Great post Sebastian
    I am very enjoyed for this site. Its an informative topic. It help me very much to solve some problems. Its opportunity are so fantastic and working style so speedy.

  2. Great post Sebastian
    I am very enjoyed for this site. Its an informative topic. It help me very much to solve some problems. Its opportunity are so fantastic and working style so speedy.

  3. It’s the duty of a good manager know how to motivate assignee in view of a change. The SCARF method is an excellent tool for good management as well as the communication skills and charisma.

  4. Perhaps what it takes for the organizations to change is naming them according to where they are along this spectrum.That might make some look at organizations further along internationalization to see if they can do something differently, or at least not kid themselves about how global their way of thinking is just because they sell their goods or services all over.

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