Thank you for sharing this Arthur. I found the SCARF model to be profoundly
useful as a frame for understanding some of the dynamics at play in my day
to day work. For example, based on this model, I can see why some
facilitation techniques I use reliably work well (by helping to equalize
Status and increase Certainty), and why it’s sometimes difficult to think
straight when interacting with people in positions of authority (Status

In a world where we may be unwittingly going around triggering each others’
basic survival responses and jamming up our cognitive functioning, it
becomes more clear why collaboration can be so difficult at times. It’s
also heartening to understand some ways that we can create better work
environments by reducing threats and increasing rewards.

The notion of creating a less socially threatening work environment brought
to mind the NY Times article about what Google learned about successful
(shared on this list in February: “[teampractices] [FYI] connection between
great teams and psychological safety”). While I found the Times article
incredibly interesting, the conclusion that establishing “psychological
safety” is the key to great teams left me hanging a bit. To me the, the
SCARF paper bridged the gap between “psychological safety is a good thing
for teams!” and “...and here’s some practical ways to lay the foundations
for establishing that safety”. Indeed, I went back and read the Times
article with the SCARF frame in mind, and found the concepts presented in
both works to be complementary.

I found myself wondering about the relative importance of the domains (S,
C, A, R, and F) to individuals. I’ve seen early career individuals calmly
and casually pitching their ideas to executives with seemingly no
sensitivity to Status, but spiraling into self-destructive behavior when
their sense of Fairness is threatened. It looks like the SCARF paper
authors wonder about this as well (“Do people vary in the importance of the
5 domains, and if so are there patterns across men and women, age groups or
cultures?” (p.8)). I also wonder how this model applies across the range of

Anyway, lots of good juicy stuff here! Here are some of my favorite quote
nuggets from the pdf of the article:

On Status:

“It can be surprisingly easy to accidentally threaten someone’s sense of
status. A status threat can occur through giving advice or instructions, or
simply suggesting someone is slightly ineffective at a task. Many everyday
conversations devolve into arguments driven by a status threat, a desire to
not be perceived as less than another. When threatened, people may defend a
position that doesn’t make sense, to avoid the perceived pain of a drop in
status.” (p.4)

“In most people, the question ‘can I offer you some feedback’ generates a
similar response to hearing fast footsteps behind you at night. Performance
reviews often generate status threats, explaining why they are often
ineffective at stimulating behavioral change. If leaders want to change
others’ behavior, more attention must be paid to reducing status threats
when giving feedback. One way to do this is by allowing people to give
themselves feedback on their own performance.” (p.4)

“While society, especially advertising and the media, would have people
spend money in order to be ‘better than others’, it doesn’t have to be a
zero-sum game. Status can be increased without cost to others or an effect
on relatedness. As well as playing against oneself, one can also change the
community one focuses on, as when a low level mailroom clerk becomes the
coach of a junior baseball team. Or, one can change what is important, for
example deciding that the quality of one’s work is more important than the
quantity of one’s work.” (p.4)

On Certainty:

“Even a small amount of uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the
orbital frontal cortex (OFC). This takes attention away from one’s goals,
forcing attention to the error (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006). If someone is
not telling you the whole truth, or acting incongruously, the resulting
uncertainty can fire up errors in the OFC. This is like having a flashing
printer icon on your desktop when paper is jammed – the flashing cannot be
ignored, and until it is resolved it is difficult to focus on other
things.” (p.4)

“Some examples of how to increase certainty include making implicit
concepts more explicit, such as agreeing verbally how long a meeting will
run, or stating clear objectives at the start of any discussion.” (p.5)

On Autonomy:

“Sound policy establishes the boundaries within which individuals can
exercise their creativity and autonomy. Sound policy should enable
individual point-of-need decision-making without
consultation with, or intervention by, leaders. In this regard, sound
policy hard-wires autonomy into the processes of an organization.” (p.5)

Wider Implications:

“For minimizing threats, knowing about the domains of SCARF helps one to
label and reappraise experiences that might otherwise reduce performance.
Labelling (Lieberman et al, 2007) and reappraisal (Ochsner & Gross, 2005)
are cognitive tools that have been verified in brain studies to be
effective techniques for reducing the threat response. These techniques
have been shown to be more effective at reducing the threat response than
the act of trying to suppress an emotion (Goldin et al, 2007). Knowing
about the elements of SCARF helps one understand issues such as why you
can’t think clearly when someone has attacked your status, instead of just
trying to push the feeling aside.” (p.7)


On Tue, Sep 27, 2016 at 7:07 PM, Arthur Richards <>

> Attached is an article discussing some interesting aspects of the brain
> that I think are useful to keep in mind when working with others -
> particular in regards to collaboration. I found the article pretty
> accessible (I don't normally read neuroscience journal articles and
> generally find scienc-y academic articles hard to digest, but of course
> ymmv).
> Here's a summary:
> This article is by David Rock, the same author of the book I recommended
> via the Melody Kramer's weekly round up thing a couple of weeks ago ("Your
> Brain at Work"), but this short article focuses on one of the things I
> found most fascinating and salient from the book: that the brain reacts to
> social relationships similarly to how it reacts to food and water. That is,
> social relationships create the same kinds of threat/reward responses in
> the brain as things we typically consider basic for human survival.
> Rock breaks this down further into a model for understanding the major
> factors of social relationships that affect threat/reward responses in the
> brain. He calls it the 'SCARF' model:
> * Status
> * Certainty
> * Autonomy
> * Relatedness
> * Fairness
> Threats to any of these things will result in an avoidance response
> (increased cortisol, reduction in prefrontal cortex functioning, and more!)
> which severely limits problem solving, creativity, positive interaction,
> etc. The inverse is true - positively supporting each of these things
> generates a 'toward' response, increasing problem solving ability,
> creativity, positive interaction, etc: collaboration.
> TPGers and other good facilitators/managers/etc probably at least
> intuitively know this to some degree or another and work with their
> teams/groups in such a way that generally supports everyone's SCARF, but I
> found it really revealing to better understand the biology behind it.
> In addition, by understanding this model as it relates to yourself, Rock
> suggests that you can better manage your own responses - when reacting
> negatively (eg from a place of reactivity rather than openness) because
> something is threatening your autonomy, for example, you can do some small
> thing that increases your own perception of autonomy, which can bring you
> back into the positive state.
> Food for thought!
> PS I pulled this from a link on David Rock's website:
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