How Managers Can Get the Best Out of Others – Using SCARF

My Scarf Collection

Which SCARF shall I wear today?

Neuroscientists are making progress in understanding what makes us tick. Apparently we are deeply motivated in our subconscious to maximise reward and minimise threats or dangers. Makes sense to me!

According to Dr David Rock, the five key dimensions to explore in our work and social experiences are: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness, hence the SCARF Model.

I look at each of these in turn to see what managers can do differently to get the best from their team members.

Status is about our sense of who we are and our position in the pecking order. We feel good when this status is enhanced and bad when our status is reduced in the eyes of others.

Consider how we give feedback to others. Do we leave the other person with a heightened or diminished sense of status? For many, just having a date in their calendar for a forthcoming performance review fills people with dread. Skilled managers will start these discussions by letting their team members review their own performance and will ensure team members are motivated by the outcomes.

Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. We seek to avoid ambiguity and desire clear expectations. Consider how stressful it is when:

  • our boss doesn’t make clear exactly what he or she wants and the deadlines,
  • we have competing demands on our time.

It might not always be possible to give staff such information. But it might be possible to say when the information will be available or when a key decision will be made. This will alleviate negative reactions.

Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. We feel good when we have a sense of choice. This explains why a boss who micromanages can demotivate us, or we feel anxious when change is imposed on us.

As a manager, it isn’t always easy to allow total freedom of choice. But consider whether you can ask for the opinions of others before deciding. Or whether you could offer your team members choices along the lines of “Here are a couple of options….which would you prefer?”

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others – of having a sense of whether they are friend rather than foe. It can feel stressful when we are at an event and don’t know anybody. Our brain and subconscious are apparently assessing the level of danger from potential foes and this effects our behaviour.

When working in global, virtual teams it is important to build a sense of relatedness and trust. Consider having buddy pairings, mentoring programmes, action learning groups to build this sense of relatedness.

Fairness is about having fair exchanges. These stimulate positive brain responses, not unlike receiving a monetary reward. Secrecy and a lack of openness can lead to a sense of threat.

Again it might be useful for managers to create an open style to create this sense of fairness. For example, it might help to be more explicit about the basis for making any decisions, such as who needs to work over the weekend or be promoted or chair an important meeting!

I provide some tips on decision-making at

Managers sometimes think they need a bullet-proof jacket for all the flak they get. It turns out they just need a SCARF!

For more on SCARF, read Dr David Rock’s article, SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, NeuroLeadership Journal, 2008

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