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Leadership tools: The SCARF model

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

We’re all human. Much as we might like to think we are completely rational in a work context, we can't escape our biology. The good news is that neuroscience can offer some useful insights into how and why we we react as we do. The even better news is that leaders can use that to create a work enviroment which leaves staff happy and motivated, and reduces conflict.

The SCARF model explains why some events and behaviours trigger a strong response in us, either positive or negative. It was developed in 2008 by a neuroscientist called David Rock.

He identified five 'domains' that influence our behaviour in social settings

1. Status – our relative importance to others.

2. Certainty – our ability to predict the future.

3. Autonomy – our sense of control over events.

4. Relatedness – how connected and safe we feel with others.

5. Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.

Rock’s research found these social domains activated the “threat and reward” responses in our brains.

This means that when we feel threatened in one (or more) of these areas, our body releases cortisol, which keeps us in a high level of alertness for an attack. In a work setting this means we get stressed and frustrated.

However, when we receive a positive interaction for one of the domains, our brain releases dopamine (the happy hormone) and we feel great!

These reactions are instinctive – we can’t stop them. They are the same responses we have to a physical threat or reward, because our social survival is as important to us as our physical survival.

Think about how you would feel if you were left out of an activity by your friends. It cuts deep, because it threatens your sense of status and relatedness. The same part of your brain is activated as when you are in physical pain. In this situation it is incredibly difficult to respond rationally.

What does this mean for leaders and company culture?

Ideally, you want your team to feel happy and relaxed, rather than stressed and frustrated. This is much better for morale and productivity.

To acheive this, use the SCARF model to focus on minimising threats and increasing rewards in each of the domains.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Minimise threat

Increase reward


Give feedback in a supportive way.*

Give praise when due, as publicly as possible.


Encourage teams to develop their resilience* to cope with uncertainty.

Be as clear as you can about what is expected and what is known.


Avoid micromanagment.

Encourage individuals to use their initiative.


Take particular care to check in with those who need it – such as remote workers or those who might be feeling isolated.

Organise events for people to get together – such as team lunches or away days.*


Never show favouritism or exclude people without reason.

Set clear rules, guidelines and expectations and make sure everyone understands these.*

I find this model a great way to think about company culture and how we can get the best out of our teams. What do you think?

*These are areas in which I offer workshops or training. Contact me for more details.

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