The SCARF Model: The Key To Unlocking Employee Engagement in 2023
José is a new manager who oversees a team of marketers at a software-as-a-service company. After a few months on the job, José notices a couple of red flags from his team member, John:
- John seems less motivated and less willing to take initiative.
- John offers fewer ideas than he used to.
- John responds passive-aggressively when José checks in on his progress.
In response, José decides to pay more attention to John and his work. He gives John extra feedback and checks in on his progress more often. But, José notices that the more attention he gives John, the more John seems to withdraw and act displeased. José is stumped and not sure what to do.
Had José only known about the SCARF model and how to use it as a leader, he would have quickly recognized that the issue was Autonomy. The more feedback and attention that José directed toward John (intending to make John feel cared for and supported), the more he made John feel distrusted, belittled, and micromanaged.
The SCARF model is a science-based, easy-to-understand framework that you can use to better understand how you either: 1) motivate people, or 2) make them feel threatened.
What is the SCARF model? The 5 Domains
The neuroscientist who created the SCARF model, David Rock, described his framework in his interview for the New York Times, saying, “The SCARF model is really a summary of what motivates us, the things we feel most passionate about, positive and negative, that drive our behavior.”
He went on to say, “The brain categorizes everything into one of two categories: threat or reward. We’re driven unconsciously to stay away from threats. We’re driven unconsciously to go toward reward. This decision about threat or reward happens five times every second. It’s very subtle. We’re making this decision about everything, good or bad, all the time.”
So, Rock devised the SCARF model, a five-part framework you can use to understand how you’re making someone feel either threatened or rewarded.
Status: Status refers to how you perceive your relative importance, rank, or standing in a social situation. In the workplace, status comes up often in terms of how an employee perceives their status within the organization. This includes things like job title, salary, recognition, and influence. For example, when one team member constantly vies for higher status, this can make their team members feel threatened.
Certainty: Certainty refers to the predictability, stability, and security you feel. In the workplace, certainty often has to do with the level of clarity, stability, and security that you feel about your responsibilities, future prospects, and your company's goals and plans. Recently, leaders have started to be more transparent with their financials, openly sharing their budget and where it’s allocated. This helps reduce feelings of uncertainty.
Autonomy: Autonomy refers to how you view your level of control and independence in a given situation. In the workplace, autonomy tends to refer to your sense of control and independence in your work. This includes things like the ability to make decisions, take initiative, and shape your work environment.
Relatedness: Relatedness refers to your sense of social connection, support, and belonging. In the workplace, this is about the quality of your relationships with your colleagues and superiors, and it’s about feeling a sense of community. Rock described relatedness as “is this person similar to me? Are they on my team? Do we have shared goals, or are they in my out-group?”
Fairness: Fairness refers to your sense of justice, equity, and impartiality in a situation. In the workplace, fairness tends to come up in areas like pay, recognition, and treatment, as well as the fairness of policies, procedures, and decision-making processes. Employees feel threatened, for example, when employees performing very similar jobs find out that they have very different salaries.
Check out David Rock’s full interview about the SCARF model for the New York Times here.
Let’s team up to train your leaders in the SCARF model.
Examples of the SCARF Model in the Workplace
Whitney’s engagement scores come in hot off the press, and they’re much worse than she was hoping to see. Instead of panicking, she takes a deep breath and commits to running through each component of the SCARF model. Here’s how she leverages the model to turn everything around:
Status – Whitney realizes that her team members are feeling a lack of status in their roles. They feel like their contributions are not being recognized, and they are not receiving promotions or other forms of advancement. To address this, she starts acknowledging the team members' accomplishments more frequently, and she provides more opportunities for them to showcase their skills and take on leadership roles. She even invites them one at a time to her management meetings so they can experience what it’s like to be in a management role.
Certainty – Whitney also realizes that her team members are feeling uncertain about the future of the company and their roles within it (they’re going through a big merger and just added three new members to her team). To address this, Whitney communicates more transparently about the company's plans and vision and provides more clarity and stability in the team's goals and responsibilities.
Autonomy – Whitney recognizes that her team members feel a lack of autonomy in their work. They feel like their decisions and ideas are not being taken into account, and they are being micromanaged. To address this, she focuses on empowering each team member to make more decisions and take ownership of key projects. Instead of swooping in and making big changes to their work, she provides support and guidance.
Relatedness – Whitney notices that her team members are feeling a lack of relatedness with one another and with the company. They feel like they are not part of a community, and they do not have strong relationships with their colleagues. To address this, Whitney fosters a more positive and supportive team culture. She runs a long Friday lunch where the whole team sits together and chats, and she opens up a slack channel called “Random,” where employees can share anything under the sun that they find interesting.
Fairness – Whitney also realizes that her team members feel like their efforts are not being fairly rewarded. At their end-of-year review, some team members expressed that they were not being paid fairly compared to others in similar roles. To address this, Whitney works with HR to review and adjust her team's compensation and workload to the best of her abilities. She also implements a more equitable process for recognition and reward, making sure to recognize each person at least once per quarter in front of the rest of the team.
5 Ways Leaders Boost Motivation, and 5 Ways They Ruin It
You can think of each of the five domains as drivers of engagement. The more you reward around the five domains, the more you’ll improve engagement. The more you create threats around the five domains, the more disengaged your employees will be.
Don’t: Overlook the experience and expertise of team members.
Do: Set aside ten minutes every Friday to send out a note of recognition to one of your team members.
Don’t: Keep employees out of the loop from big company changes.
Do: Be transparent about your expectations, your timeline, and your goals when assigning a project.
Don’t: Micromanage employees or add unnecessary systems to “check” work.
Do: Empower employees to make decisions for themselves and take full ownership of their work.
Don’t: Publicly criticize an employee in front of your team.
Do: Provide team building opportunities in a fun, relaxed environment (i.e., host a picnic, do a puzzle together, go hiking).
Don’t: Assign more desirable, higher-profile tasks to your “favorite” team member.
Do: Communicate transparently about a decision you made and why you made it.
For more on motivation, read What If We’re Thinking Of Motivation All Wrong.
For more on employee engagement, read 5 Things Every Manager Needs To Know About Employee Engagement.
How the SCARF Model Came to Be
The neuroscientist David Rock devised the SCARF model after interviewing over thirty neuroscientists for his book, Your Brain At Work. He said, “I was interviewing over thirty neuroscientists to understand how the brain works in different situations. Something that kept coming up over and over was this idea that there were different social situations that created either a reward response or a threat response.”
In fact, in Rock’s paper, “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others,” he writes about the research of psychologist Naomi Eisenberger who found that our brains can’t even distinguish between physical and social threats, or between physical and social rewards. In other words, a threat in the office is received by your brain identically to a physically dangerous threat. To help people respond better to threats and rewards, and become more aware of how they trigger feelings of threat and reward in others, Rock devised the SCARF model.
The SCARF Model In Your Everyday Life
One of the best ways to master any framework is to start to recognize and experiment with it in your personal life. Luckily, since we are constantly sorting experiences as threats and rewards, we have a nearly infinite number of experiences we can run through the five domains of the SCARF model. So, next time you find yourself making a decision or feeling threatened, slow down and put your experience through the framework.
Watch this video for a detailed breakdown of the SCARF model:
Interested in learning about other powerful frameworks? Read:
SMART Goals Get Results: How To Set SMART Goals (With Examples)