The World of Work Project

David Rock’s SCARF model

David Rock’s SCARF model details five social factors that affect how individuals feel and behave within a team. Getting the factors right helps people be their best. Getting them wrong leads to stress. The factors are: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Summary by The World of Work Project

David Rock’s SCARF model

The SCARF model captures five key social factors that have the power to affect how people feel and behave when part of a group.

Nice scarf…

These factors all have the ability to make individuals feel threatened or feel rewarded. In fact, social threats and rewards associated with these factors cause the human brain to respond in the same ways, and to the same extent, that it does to physical threats or rewards.

When we experience social threats and our brain’s threat response is triggered (see emotional intelligence and amygdala hijacking), our effectiveness at collaborating, thinking, focusing, planning, making decisions and otherwise being rational is greatly reduced. We experience negative emotions, thoughts and feelings and generally feel fairly unhappy. Though different individuals respond in different ways to these social factors, if we work in environments in which we experience frequent social threats then stress and anxiety become likely. As a rule, we seek to avoid situations where social threats exist, and seek to move towards situations where they do not exist.

Unfortunately, social and emotional threats are common in many workplaces, so much so that the concept of “psychological safety” has come about to help individuals and organizations understand what non-threatening environments are like.

While David Rock’s SCARF model doesn’t explicitly reference psychological safety, it broadly calls out some of the key factors that contribute towards making environments and social relationships safe from a psychological perspective.

The SCARF model can help us feel safe.

The factors of the SCARF model

The five factors that make up the SCARF model are: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status

Status is all about the relative, perceived social importance of members of the group. Everyone wants to feel important. If we don’t feel that we have some level of status, then we tend to feel less valued and less secure in our place in the group, thus less safe.

When our status is threatened, we can feel strong emotions and potentially experience a threat response. A simple example of this in the work place could be someone treating us without respect. Another simple example of this could be someone who we don’t think has the right to give us feedback, doing so. We subconsciously think that their act of providing us with feedback is a threat to our status. If this happens it can make us feel indignant and we will cease to be at our best.

People like to feel better than other people, that’s part of the reason that conspicuous consumption is common.

Certainty

Certainty relates to our ability to predict the future. The better we are at this, the happier and more certain we feel. If we can’t predict the future, we feel uncomfortable.

When our certainty is threatened, we can start to feel unsafe. The less certainty we have the more anxious we tend to feel and the more emotional energy we tend to spend on doing things like predicting the future and trying to assure the future.

In some instances, if our sense of certainty is threatened we’ll experience a threat response. For example, if someone changes a due date on a piece of work, we can feel threatened and become highly stressed.

Autonomy

Autonomy relates to our sense of control over ourselves, what we do and the events around us. The more control we have the more positive we feel, and vice-versa. When we have autonomy we feel safe and in control.

Everyone values autonomy and independence.

However, when we don’t have autonomy we run the risk of feeling psychologically unsafe. We feel out of control. In fact, we may feel controlled by others which can be a very negative feeling.

If there is a challenge to our autonomy, for example we are micromanaged or forced to do a specific task or do things in a specific way, then we can feel quite psychologically threatened. Again, if strong enough, these threats can trigger the brains threat response. An example of this in the world of work could be someone editing a presentation that you’ve done and making many, minor changes that don’t improve the presentation.

Relatedness

Relatedness relates to our sense of safety with others, how able we feel to relate to them. If we are surrounded by friends who wish us well and whose objectives are aligned with our own, then we’ll tend to feel safe and positive. If we’re not, then we don’t.

Obviously, if we don’t feel that we are able to relate to those around us, then we may experience threat responses. Examples of things that could lead to a threat response include a change in behavior of those around us from supportive towards unsupportive.

Fairness

Justice has a sword in part because fairness is so important to people.

Fairness relates to our sense of justice and equity in the interactions that take place around us. If we work in an environment in which effort and attainment are rewarded, bad behavior is addressed and leaders value playing by the rules, then we’re likely to feel that things are fair.

If, instead, we sense that things are not fair, then we may feel unhappy and unsafe. Examples of unfair behavior that can lead to a threat response include things like leadership applying praise where it is not due or failing to address bad behaviors, nepotism or social cheating. Here’s one that might be particularly emotive for the UK readers. Queue jumping is a form of social cheating that can trigger a threat response through its challenge to one’s sense of fairness.

The World of Work Project View

David Rock’s SCARF model is a great framework through which to understand the factors which affect how individuals feel in part of a group.

From a leadership or team management perspective, it’s a powerful set of criteria through which to assess the culture of your own team. We are sure that diagnostic tools based on it will be available somewhere.

That said, it’s not just leaders who are responsible for a team’s culture. Individuals in teams have a large role to play in shaping their team’s cultures too. Given this, we think that many teams would benefit from sharing and discussing David Rock’s SCARF model in team meetings or similar forums. We think these conversations would not only start to address some important issues, but that they would also help individuals develop the language needed to effectively discuss how they feel within their teams.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on work created by David Rock and published in his 2008 paper: “SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others“. You can read more about David Rock and his work at his website.

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