David Rock – SCARF Model of Social Experience

It is now known that the brain organises things using a basic threat or reward principle, and that our first instinct is to assess threat levels. However, dealing with a ‘threat’ takes more brain resources and reduces our ability to find solutions to problems and be creative. It seems that our brains consider social threats just the same as more ‘real’ threats – like a pay cut, a weapon, or a predator. In the same way, social reward such as praise may sometimes be as effective as offering more money, or a promotion.

This makes the SCARF model really important when it comes to interacting with others. Leaders and anyone working in a team will benefit from an understanding of the social triggers that generate ‘threat’ or ‘reward’ responses and states of mind.

SCARF covers five domains of social experience that your brain treats exactly the same as survival issues – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. By recognising the impact of these five elements, we can gain more control over our emotions, preventing them from undermining our efforts.

We need to think about how those we work with will be affected by everything we say and do. This will help us become better leaders and team members; prompting us to change our behaviour to avoid challenges to people’s status, erring towards offering autonomy rather than micromanaging, and encouraging social connections in the workplace.

Here is a summary of the basic elements of SCARF:

Status  – This is to do with ‘pecking order’. (Research has shown that higher status monkeys have lower stress levels, live longer and are healthier.) A threat to your status has been shown to trigger the same threat response as physical pain, so it’s really important to acknowledge everyone’s status at all levels, all of the time. This may mean acknowledging excellence in a specific skill for a lower level team member, for instance

Certainty – Our brains are constantly trying to predict the future. To pick up a cup, the brain estimates what will happen based on its last experience of doing the same thing. If something feels different, the brain gets an ‘error message’ which distracts it from other things until the uncertainty is resolved.

Reducing uncertainty is an important goal of change management e.g. having clear communications with specific information about what is known about the changes, and then dates of when more information may be available.

Autonomy  – If we feel we have no control over our environment, this leads to stress – which can be debilitating. The Agile Project Management (AgilePM®) framework relies on ‘empowered people’. Being able to make decisions within your own area of expertise generates a sense of reward.

Relatedness – People yearn to feel that they ‘belong’ to a group. If someone is categorised as a competitor or an outsider, the ability to empathise and try and understand that person drops. Relatedness is closely linked to trust, which is critical for close collaboration and the sharing of information.

Fairness – Increasing transparency and improving communication can reduce the risk of people feeling that something is unfair. Ensuring that ground rules for teams or professional behaviour are clearly laid out and well understood can help, as can clearly communicated goals and an agreed vision.

The impact of SCARF on the behaviours that drive success in project management and change management is profound. By focusing on SCARF, we have the potential to reduce conflict, improve team performance, increase stakeholder engagement and work towards becoming more effective leaders.

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