The Science-Backed Case for Treating Your Vendors as Partners


We are all in the throes of managing work and life at home now with our efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 infections. Work relationships, especially with vendors, can be very uncertain and complex.

Typically, we may think of these relationships as purely transactional, professional. But now more than ever, we ought to consider the science of social threat and reward to understand what motivates one another and helps us feel fulfilled and engaged.

A case study in SCARF®

Let’s say you have one vendor that is providing solely in-person training. Now, imagine you have another vendor who you work with to provide different kinds of training from in-person to completely virtual.

Given the constraints of social distancing, the first vendor works with you to cancel all your outstanding events for the year. However, the second vendor works with you to transform your delivery methods and meet your organizational training goals while also taking into consideration your long-term needs and objectives.

Once the crises pass, chances are you’ll look to the second vendor for future engagements. Why? In part, it’s because they met your needs in a way that went beyond the short-term. In NLI parlance, they met more of your SCARF® needs—they aligned more closely to the SCARF® Model of social threat and reward, which collects five sources of motivation or demotivation. Those include status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

Using the science of social threat and reward

Over the ages, our brain developed to scan for threats to keep us safe from predators. Today, we may not be worried about a saber-toothed tiger in the tall grass, but our brains are still scanning the environment for threats and rewards. When we feel threatened, our cognitive processes shut down. When we feel rewarded, we “lean in” and engage.

By leveraging both your SCARF® profile and understanding the profile of your business partners you can:

  • Better regulate your emotions and encourage a reward state
  • Better communicate your current and potential needs
  • Make choices more suited to your own preferences and that of your business partners

For instance, imagine you are trying to work in a situation where you must work from home, your kids are home and must now be homeschooled, and you can’t buy toilet paper anywhere. (Perhaps this scenario is already a bit too close to reality.) You can accommodate your business partners’ SCARF® needs by asking if they are going through something very similar—as a way to build relatedness and certainty and show they aren’t alone.

Build certainty, autonomy, and relatedness

In many cases where disruption serves as the backdrop for business interactions, understand that people’s autonomy, certainty and relatedness levers may be triggered. To restore people’s sense of calm, belonging, and agency, try taking the time to open each interaction with a human approach to what is going on for them. You can give them autonomy to take the discussion wherever is most useful for them while providing certainty of your company’s commitment to them. You can even offer to be on camera for calls or share funny stories to foster relatedness.

Research suggests this will alleviate their potential SCARF® threats and create a lasting bond and a more fruitful future.

Author: Jonathan Grinstein, Ph.D.

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