The SCARF Model

‘In a world of increasing interconnectedness and rapid change, there is a growing need to improve the way people work together.’ – David Rock

The brainchild of David Rock, the SCARF Model is what summarises key discoveries from neuroscience relating to how people interact socially. The idea is that one’s brain treats a variety of social threats and rewards in the same way as a physical threat or reward.

Understanding that the human brain is a social organ which perceives the workplace as a social environment can help leaders manage and facilitate these needs to the benefit of the employees.

The SCARF Model involves five social needs present in the human brain:






Let us understand these needs, one by one:

  1. StatusStatus refers to our social need for importance, significance, respect, esteem and a place in the social “pecking order”. Several studies have shown that social status and respect is much more rewarding for our brain than monetary gains. At your workplace, threats to your status can appear in the form of someone with a superior attitude, receiving negative feedback or patronizing advice and being left out or humiliated. On the flip side, a real boost to your status can be triggered by appreciations, recognitions, promotions and receiving positive feedback.
  1. Certainty – Simply put, the brain wants to know what happens next. Certainty reduces ambiguity. Our brain is continually assessing different patterns in the environment. It prefers familiar patterns where the outcome can easily be predicted. Unfamiliar patterns will cause the brain to remain cautious and alert. This can cause stress and impair one’s judgement. Threats to certainty include half-truths, inconsistency, job-insecurity, radical changes, new places and meeting strangers. Feelings of security and stability, familiar surroundings and consistency can help trigger positive responses.
  1. AutonomyAutonomy provides a sense of control over events. A study showed that allowing people to make a few autonomous decisions can increase their motivation by up to five times. Factors that can threaten any sense of autonomy are micromanagement, working with very strict guidelines and policies, authoritative leaders and inflexibility. Quite the opposite are factors which activate your brain’s reward-response. They are – making your own decision, organizing your workflow or even choosing what to focus on, self-learning and time management.
  1. RelatednessRelatedness is about connection and a sense of belonging. It refers to our need to feel safe with other people and to be a part of the group. Here, the brain is constantly assessing people as ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. One would feel more comfortable talking to someone they are familiar with rather than talking to a complete stranger. Studies have shown that a social rejection activates the brain the same way physical pain would. At work, being ignored or excluded from a group, rejection, working with new colleagues, etc. can be termed as threats to relatedness. Contrary to these would be feeling included or trusted, friendship, being part of the team and working towards common goals.
  1. FairnessFairness is the perception of being treated fairly. According to David Rock, experiencing fairness or unfairness can cause the brain to react in a way it would while experiencing physical pain or pleasure. For your brain, being fair is more important than money. Broken promises, not meeting expectations and inconsistency can appear as threats to our brain’s need for fairness. The rewards-response for fairness is triggered by keeping promises and sticking to commitments, being transparent and honest, and maintaining an open communication between each other.

Performance feedback and employee engagement can become more effective when we learn how to manage these five elements. Each element can increase or reduce engagement in an interaction. Taking these into account enables improved communication.















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