SCARF model stimulating autonomy in the workplace

Using the SCARF Model to Become a Better Leader

The SCARF model helps understand what it means to be an effective leader? Leaders motivate their teams, they set the organizational culture, and they make important decisions. However, they also play a vital, and often underestimated, role in managing challenging interpersonal situations. This might involve resolving conflict between two employees, managing an intern’s expectations, or even helping an upset client to understand your perspective.

While these workplace issues may seem illogical and unavoidable, there is an underlying reason behind each behavior. More importantly, by learning the science, you can resolve these issues before they cause your company major problems. The SCARF Model helps you make sense of what to focus on.

What is the SCARF Model?

Developed by neuroscientist David Rock, the SCARF Model explains that the social domains of (1) Status, (2) Certainty, (3) Autonomy, (4) Relatedness, and (5) Fairness activate powerful threat and reward responses that have a dramatic effect on our behavior.

Our brain responds disproportionately to these social domains because they conferred a genuine survival advantage in our evolutionary past. Far back in time, the hunter-gatherer humans who approached fresh berries lived to pass on their genes. Those who decided to take on a tiger did not. Similarly, the tribe member who is held in high esteem by his peers was less likely to be murdered in his sleep.

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The situation has changed. We now hunt for food in supermarkets and engage in tribal warfare over Twitter. And yet our brains remember their long history as if they emerged from the wild only yesterday. Within each of our brains, we are running a set of incredibly out of date reward and punishment circuits. This makes us behave in ways that appear irrational in the workplaces of today but made perfect sense in the wilderness of the past.

Examples of the SCARF Model in the Workplace

Imagine the following scenario:

Situation 1:

Grant was a junior business analyst working for a big consulting firm. His supervisor, Julie, had seen his potential and decided to give him a larger role in a new project. Then, she explained to Grant that he had handful control of the process, and he relished the opportunity, working harder and more enthusiastically than he ever had before.

After a few weeks, Julie decided to check in to see how he was going. She reviewed all of his notes and realized that he had taken a completely different approach to the one that she would have. Concerned by this, she quickly got involved in the project and started making changes. She made sure to be directly involved with every decision that Grant made on the project. She reasoned that her close management would eventually turn Grant into a good project manager. Despite Julie’s best efforts, Grant seemed to be constantly defensive toward her.

Situation 2:

Julie also noticed that, despite being promoted, Grant was still spending a lot of time socializing with the people he used to work alongside. Julie reasoned that this was probably because he was still working from a cubicle. In recognition of his new role, and with the intention of allowing him to spend his time focusing, she assigned him a new personal office on the opposite site of the building. At first, he seemed grateful, however, Julie soon noticed that Grant was less enthusiastic when he arrived at work each morning. This seemed to be strange behavior for a person who was just given a new office.

Situation 3:

Rumors began to circle that Grant was even considering resigning. Julie was shocked and she knew she could not afford to lose him. She decided to give him a salary increase that made him the most highly paid employee in his position. Grant seemed a little confused by the gesture but chose to accept and stayed in his current position. Soon, however, Julie noticed that other employees were beginning to complain about their own salaries. Why was Grant worth more than them, they questioned?

What went wrong? We will use the SCARF Models to deconstruct the situation and help you see where the leverage points are for improvement.


What Happens when we Challenge an Employees Status?

Humans, employees included, have an innate tendency to strive for status. This drive likely evolved thousands of years ago when the majority of humans congregated in small groups (e.g., tribes). Status was essential in these times because resources were scarce and the leader, and those close to them, would eat first and would have the best access to warm furs and lodgings. Those humans who failed to gain status were more likely to die, thereby failing to pass on their genes. In essence, this has left us with a population full of humans who are predisposed toward valuing status.

It is likely that Grant experienced a challenge to his status when Julie began to take over his project. Although she was trying to help, this threat was enough to make Grant genuinely uncomfortable and even willing to take dramatic action. Status might be relevant in all sorts of situations. Perhaps an executive leader is being moved into a less esteemed position or you are bringing in a more experienced person to run a growing team. Remember, even if your intentions are good, people may still respond poorly when their status is threatened.

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How can you Foster a Sense of Status?

(1) Create more than one stream of success. More specifically, avoid a system in which one person has to fail for the other to succeed. This can create result in managers holding promising employees back for fear of their own position.

(2) Recognize excellence. If someone does something well, make sure you acknowledge it, preferably publicly.


What Happens when an Organization Lacks Certainty?

Humans are biased toward predictable situations. While your average corporate employee will probably survive any number of unexpected events (e.g., losing money on an investment) their ancestors may not have been so lucky. Our brains have retained this tendency to avoid unpredictable (risky) situations, even though it is no longer the best solution.

In the example above, Julie was likely experiencing the threat of uncertainty when she found out that Grant was considering leaving. This made her act drastically by giving him a raise that he had not earned.

How to Reduce Uncertainty in the Workplace

Attempt to portray a sense of certainty and stability to all parties that you work with. This could be a new intern, a potential client, or a conflicted manager. The more solid a situation seems, the more the human brain will be comfortable with it.


Why does Autonomy Matter in a Workplace?

Autonomy is one of the primary psychological motivators that humans experience. It is the experience of being able to choose one’s own actions, without restraint. Employees who do not experience autonomy tend to be less motivated.

In the current case, Grant likely experienced a threat to his autonomy when Julie began to take over his project. Because he was unable to choose how he undertook the project, he may have felt unmotivated and less invested.

How to Promote Autonomy in the Workplace

The SCARF model also suggests you give employees responsibility and trust them, even when they seem to be struggling. Guidance can be helpful but micromanaging or taking over is often damaging.

Trust your employees. Sometimes employees will have a different approach to you, and it can be easy to interpret this as inferior. If you want to grow your company and generate genuine value, you need to trust the people around you.

SCARF model stimulating autonomy in the workplace


Why is Relatedness Important?

The ability to connect with human beings is one of the most powerful motivators around. When we see our employees sitting around and chatting, it can be tempting to assume that they are being unproductive. And yet, in the long term, employees who are afforded the opportunity for regular human connection in the workplace will be more productive. When we connect with other people, our brains secrete a hormone called oxytocin which is motivating and creates positive feelings. In most cases, the worst thing a manager can do for productivity is isolating the employee.

In the current scenario, removing Grant from his social connections may have impacted his level of motivation. A personal office can be a nice motivator, but not if you have nobody to share it with.

How to Promote Relatedness in the Workplace?

Encourage collaboration and informal conversation (e.g., water bubbler chats). Never punish employees for connecting with one another.


Why Fairness is Important in the Workplace?

You may have noticed that humans experience unfair situations as if they were painful slights. This may seem like it would be fairly benign when it comes to minor differences in personal income or department budgets. However, anyone who has had to deal with such a dispute will realize that it is anything but.

Humans likely evolved a strong dislike of unfair situations through the process of evolution. When there was not even enough food to go around, any disparity could mean the difference between life and death. While this is not necessarily the case any longer, we are still strongly affected by seemingly unfair situations.

How to Reduce Unfairness in the Workplace?

Have a standard for all employees and try not to make exceptions. Plan the price you charge for services, the hourly salary for employees, and other factors in advance so that you are not in the position to create an inequitable situation.

As you have now seen, the SCARF Model helps you to assess the situation more clearly and choose effective ways of managing the workplace culture. Hopefully this article was useful to you and you can use the SCARF model to become a more effective professional.

If you would like to read more articles about brain and behavior insights, check out the rest of our blog!

About Neurofied

Neurofied is a management consulting and training company specialized in Brain & Behavior. We help teams and organizations design, implement, and optimize their change management, growth strategy, learning & development and much more with insights from behavioral psychology and neuroscience.

Since 2018, we have trained 1500+ professionals and worked with 50+ teams of companies like ABN AMRO, Tesla, Calvin Klein, and Adidas. We are also frequent speakers at universities and conferences.

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