scarf-model

What is the SCARF model?

The SCARF model was created by Dr. David Rock in 2008, a neuroscientist who helps individuals and businesses incorporate neuroscientific research into the workplace. The SCARF model is a framework that explains human behavior in various social domains.

Understanding the SCARF model

The model is based on three core ideas:

  1. The human brain treats some social rewards and threats with the same intensity as physical rewards and threats.
  2. The ability to solve problems, make decisions, or collaborate with others is, in most cases, increased by a reward response and decreased by a threat response, and
  3. Compared to the reward response, the threat response is more common and thus needs to be minimized in social interactions.

Using the SCARF model, employees and their superiors can first classify and then understand the various social drivers that influence their behavior.

Ultimately, the model enables practitioners to create social interactions that maximize rewards and minimize threats. 

How this process may play out with respect to the five domains is outlined in the next section.

The five domains of the SCARF model

The SCARF model identifies five social drivers (domains) of human behavior which comprise the model’s acronym. These drivers (and their relevance to the workplace) are explained below.

1 – Status (S) 

Status describes one’s personal worth and relative importance to others. In the workplace, this driver is a desire to stand out and be credited for one’s work or ideas. 

Leaders who take credit for the work of subordinates may diminish an employee’s sense of status.

Conversely, leaders who recognize subordinate contributions and allow them to share their wins with the team increase their status.

2 – Certainty (C) 

Certainty relates to how confident one is about the future.

Humans crave certainty, so threats arise when roles and responsibilities are poorly defined or if meetings run well over their allotted time.

Certainty can be increased with clear expectations, objectives, and timelines.

3 – Autonomy (A) 

Autonomy is how much control one believes they have over their life. Leaders who tend to micromanage pose a threat to an employee’s autonomy. 

When leaders provide the space and time for employees to work unencumbered, on the other hand, they communicate that they trust the person’s ability to get the job done.

4 – Relatedness (R) 

Relatedness describes the degree to which we feel connected to others. Invariably in organizations, teams are comprised of a popular group and a not-so-popular group. 

To increase relatedness, superiors need to shrink the size of the not-so-popular group.

Instead of using language such as “you” or “they” which reinforces the divide between the groups, leaders should use a more inclusive term such as we” or “us”.

5 – Fairness 

Fairness is related to an innate human desire for a sense of equality or equity in social situations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of us favor something justified or for the greater good as opposed to something biased toward one party.

In the workplace, fair leaders are transparent leaders.

They can communicate their decision-making process and explain the reasoning behind choosing one option over another. 

When leaders do not communicate the justification behind their decisions, employees are free to concoct their own stories.

This creates disharmony because many employees base stories around a belief that they have been slighted or disadvantaged in some way.

Key takeaways:

  • The SCARF model is a framework that explains human behavior in various social domains. It was created by Dr. David Rock, a neuroscientist who helps individuals and businesses incorporate neuroscientific research into the workplace
  • The SCARF model enables practitioners to create social interactions in the workplace that maximize rewards and minimize threats. Rewards and threats interact in social workplace interactions to influence decision-making, collaboration, and problem-solving, among other things.
  • The five domains of the SCARF model are status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. When leaders remember that the human brain seeks to minimize threats at all costs, they can act in ways that benefit employees and the organization.

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