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Introduction to the SCARF Model

Neuro-science & Change

The SCARF model is an easy-to-use, easy-to-remember model to help you understand what drives motivation in yourself and others. Using this model helps you answer the questions –

  • What motivates people to act?
  • What pushes them away?

The SCARF Model was developed by Dr David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work and founder of NeuroLeadership Institute. It is a summary of important discoveries from neuroscience about the way people interact and what drives their behaviour. Rock proposed when people’s SCARF needs were adequately satisfied, engagement and motivation would increase.

SCARF stands for the five key domains that influence our behaviour in social and work situations. They are:

Status – our sense of personal worth and relative importance to others. Status is a significant driver of workplace behaviour.

Certainty – our sense of what the future holds. Uncertainty and lack of clarity can inhibit a person’s ability to make effective decisions and increases stress levels.

Autonomy – our sense of control over events and our lives. A person’s brain sees the lack of autonomy as a threat situation, whereas being given more autonomy activates the reward system.

Relatedness – our sense of safety with others. Humans are social animals and need connectedness and acceptance within the group to thrive. Being excluded from social groups activates the threat response. Having strong relationships built on trust produces the ‘feel-good’ hormone oxytocin and supports a person’s overall wellbeing.

Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be. If we perceive something as unfair, our brain automatically switches to defence mode.

The basic premise of the model is underpinned by the primary organising principle of how our brain works. That principle tells us that the primitive part of our brain sees through a lens of reward and threat. Therefore, our brain makes us subconsciously behave in certain ways, to minimise threats and maximise rewards.  For example, you may have recently been praised for a report you submitted, therefore, feel as though your status has been adequately rewarded.  Alternatively, in a recent team meeting, a colleague highlighted some errors you had made, therefore, threatening your sense of status. 

The SCARF model can be used to plan interactions with other people that minimise threats and maximise rewards in each of the five domains. For example, if you need to provide constructive feedback to a team member, you might plan to do this privately to minimise their status and relatedness threats. If a person feels threatened, their primitive emotional brain essentially hijacks their ability to think rationally, problem-solve or make effective decisions.

The SCARF model can be used to work more effectively alongside others by minimising perceived threats and maximising the positive feelings generated by reward. It is particularly useful if you need to collaborate with or coach others, or when you need to provide training and feedback.

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