Using the SCARF model to improve your leadership skills

Last year I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Dr David Rock, founding member of the NeuroLeadership Institute. The topic of the lecture was ‘Developing leaders with the brain in mind’. NeuroLeadership focuses on how individuals in a social environment make decisions, solve problems, regulate their emotions, collaborate with and influence others, and facilitate change (Ringleb and Rock, 2008). The lecture highlighted the importance of developing leaders, who are not only technically astute but who are also successful in dealing with people. To achieve this, Dr Rock presented the SCARF model, which is rooted in social neuroscience, and is useful when collaborating with and influencing others.

Collaboration & influence using the SCARF model

SCARF model - When leaders use their brains...The SCARF model is based on the ‘minimize danger and maximize reward ‘principle, which according to Gordon (2000) is an overarching, organising principle of the brain. It is based on the idea that when a person experiences a stimulus in his or her brain he or she will either judge the stimulus as ‘good’, or ‘bad’. If a stimulus is associated with positive emotions or rewards, it will likely lead to an approach response, if it is associated with negative emotions or punishments, it will likely lead to an avoid response. Research, summarised by Lieberman and Eisenberger (2009) suggests that social experiences and concrete physical experiences activate the same pain-related or reward-related circuitry in the brain. For example, in addition to physical pain, the pain circuitry is implicated in social exclusion, bereavement and being treated unfairly. On the other side, apart from physical pleasures, the reward circuitry is implicated in, for example, having a good reputation, being treated fairly and being cooperative. Dr Rock summarised these findings in the SCARF model, which focuses on social interactions and experiences and comprises five domains or core concerns: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

  • Status is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others - of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

Some examples of actions that can evoke either a threat response or a reward response:

SCARF table

Every situation or interaction with an employee evokes either a threat or reward response.

Why should you care?

It is important for a leader to be aware, that every action taken and every decision made can either support or undermine the perceived level of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness. The SCARF model provides a simple way of becoming conscious of social interactions. Its goal is to minimise the easily activated threat responses and maximise positively engaged states of mind when attempting to collaborate with and influence others. Leaders who understand this dynamic can promote engagement in their employees and create an environment that supports optimal performance. Elke-Chrystal Elke Chrystal manages the JvR Academy offering in Africa. You can email her on


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Gordon, E. (Ed.) (2000). Integrative neuroscience. Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain. Amsterdam, Netherlands: CRC Press . Lieberman, M. D., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2009). Pains and pleasures of social life. Science, Vol. 322, February 2009, p 890-891. Ringleb, A. H., & Rock, D. (2008). The emerging field of NeuroLeadership. Retrieved from: Rock, D. (2008): SCARF. A brain based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Retrieved from: Photo Credit: Mikey G Ottawa via Compfight cc