The SCARF Model

David Rock, author of Your Brain At Work, believes that there are five particular qualities that we as human beings crave – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness – the absence of which tends to make people crazy. In the case of someone being laid off, all of these qualities are under attack at once. These five qualities seem to be very important to the brain and they form the basis of a framework he calls the SCARF model.

If your job involves communicating with people (whether as a leader, parent, manager, friend) this is very useful to keep in mind.


We are all constantly evaluating our self-worth. It fluctuates on any given day, depending on which side of the bed you rolled out of, or who you’re standing next to. What’s it like when someone pulls rank on you, or compares their wealth or achievement with yours? It feels heavy and negative, doesn’t it? It takes the wind out of your sails. That’s because your status is under attack. The way to build a person’s self-worth is to provide specific and actionable feedback. Begin with the positive, and then give direction or ask for changes. Don’t give negative feedback in front of a team.


How does it feel to be in limbo? Not very good, right? Most people will do anything to avoid the ambiguous “grey area”. We prefer predictability and thrive on sureness. If somebody wants a status update from you and you don’t have one yet, at least tell them when they can expect one from you. Say anything, but don’t leave people hanging. This “not knowing” drives people crazy. I wrote about this in my last newsletter. As a recruiter, I was often sensitive to people waiting to hear from me about job opportunities. If I didn’t have news and I knew they expected it, I would simply say “I don’t have anything for you right now, but by Wednesday we should know more.” This specific level of feedback is usually enough.


Our ability to exert control over our work environment has a substantial effect on performance and our response to stress. Being in control means we have some choices. You’ve often heard the phrase “Tell me what to do, don’t tell not how to do it.” How many people do you know who have left a job because their manager was hovering over them? If you are a director at your firm, give people some choices. Try the statement: “Here’s two different options, what would you prefer to try?” You’ll get a much better reaction than with, “Here’s what I need you to do.” Relatedness

This refers to how connected we feel to others at work and elsewhere, known in some circles as “camaraderie”. Strong social connections can make a big difference to our overall happiness and productivity at work. People generally work harder and give more, when they feel engaged or connected to a cause. Learn to actively listen. Make eye contact and communicate respectfully so that people feel that you are on their side. Fairness

Hostility is most stirred up when individuals feel they have been treated unfairly. In the workplace, this can be when “the rules” apply to some of the team but not everyone. How to get closer to a state of fairness? Establish clear expectations so that people know what they need to do and cannot argue that they have been treated unfairly if they haven’t performed. Pay attention and include the feelings of all members of a group when setting the rules, so that everyone agrees on what is considered ‘fair’.
Be transparent and share information in a timely manner. The SCARF model can help you monitor your own behavior at work, helping you to understand why you may sometimes feel under attack. It can also help improve your working relationship with others by understanding the optimal conditions under which people do their best work. As in all things, the golden rule is always to treat others as you would like to be treated.