How to use the SCARF model to maximise reward and eliminate threats

Have you ever struggled with building teamwork? Do you remember times when you thought everything was working well, only to find that your colleagues were unhappy or frustrated? We’re here to help with a simple and clear rundown of how to use the SCARF model to improve communication and understand your influence when working in a team.

What is the SCARF Model?

The SCARF model was first developed in 2008 by David Rock in his paper; SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others.

SCARF stands for the five key areas that influence our behaviour in social situations. They are:

  1. Status: Our relative importance to other people.
  2. Certainty: Our ability to predict the future.
  3. Autonomy: Our sense of control over events.
  4. Relatedness: How safe we feel with others.
  5. Fairness: How fair we feel the exchanges between people to be.

The SCARF model is based on research that implies that these five social areas activate the same threat and reward responses in our brains that we rely on for our physical survival.

These fairly ‘primitive’ reactions help to explain the strong emotional responses we can have in some social situations and why it can be hard to control them. It’s a base instinct and unfortunately, it can’t be ‘turned off’.

For example, when we are left out of an activity, we might see it as a threat to our status and our relatedness. Research has shown that this emotional response can stimulate the same region of the brain as physical pain. Our brain is sending out the signal that we’re in danger.

Furthermore, when we do feel threatened, physically, or socially, the release of the stress hormone cortisol can have an impact on our creativity and productivity. It muddles things in our minds so we are unable to think straight, and this confusion can heighten the feeling of being threatened.

On the flip side however, when we feel rewarded, receiving praise for our work for example, our brains release dopamine, the happy hormone, which makes us want to seek the reward again.

So how can you use the SCARF model to maximise your colleagues’ sense of reward and eliminate perceived threats, for each area of the SCARF model?

Let’s break it down.

Tips to improve team wellbeing for each area of the SCARF model

1. Status

Minimise threats:

Things like mishandling feedback can threaten one’s sense of status and even cause anger or defensiveness. Adopting a gentler approach can help. For example, letting a colleague evaluate their own performance, or working to reframe feedback in a more positive way can remove some of the threat.

Maximise reward:

Regularly give your team members praise when they perform well and provide opportunities for them to develop their skills and knowledge. For example, you could give them more responsibility or involve them in new projects that excite them.

3. Certainty

Minimise threats:

The fear of unpredictability can trigger a threat response in our brains. To minimise this, ensure there is clear and regular communication within your team regarding expectations, timelines, and project updates. Provide a roadmap for upcoming changes and acknowledge the uncertainty, assuring your team that efforts are being made to manage it effectively.

Maximise reward:

Empower your team members by giving them a sense of control over their work. Inform them of upcoming plans and goals, and involve them in decision-making processes whenever possible.

2. Autonomy

Minimise threats:

Micromanagement is one of the biggest threats to autonomy. Try to avoid getting too heavily involved in people’s day-to-day work, instead showing that you trust their judgement by including them in the decision-making process. Also, be sure to delegate applicable tasks, instead of holding onto them.

Maximise reward:

By allowing colleagues to take on more responsibility and use their initiative, you allow them to become more autonomous. Give them the space and freedom to try out new ideas.

3. Relatedness

Minimise threats:

A lack of relatedness results in us feeling isolated and lonely, which can reduce creativity, commitment and collaboration in teams. You can negate this by introducing a buddy system, or mentoring arrangements, or just by upping the regularity of your communication. This is particularly important for remote workers.

Maximise reward:

When we connect with others, we get a hit of the ‘love’ hormone called oxytocin. The more oxytocin that’s released, the more connected we feel. Work to build stronger bonds with your team members through regular contact, informal chatter and video calls. Get everyone on camera and invest in spending time with each other.

4. Fairness

Minimise threats:

If someone believes something to be unfair, this activates their insular cortex, the area of the brain that is closely linked to feelings of disgust. This can evoke a powerful threat response. Minimise the chances of this by always being open and honest with your colleagues about what is going on and why, for as long as it is appropriate to do so.

Maximise reward:

Unfairness is most likely to occur when there is a lack of rules, expectations or objectives. Setting up a system that clarifies individual goals, team goals, day-to-day operations etc can go some ways to remedy this. But remember, talk to your team and get their opinions and approval before you go ahead with it, in order to gain the best reception.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. That’s the SCARF model. 

Remember that not everyone works the same way and that everyone can react differently to any given situation. To use the SCARF model most effectively, it’s key to understand each of your team members. Consider who that individual is before taking any action, and adjust your strategy accordingly. If you can master applying the SCARF model to your daily interactions, you’ll be one step closer to building a functional and fulfilling working environment for everyone around you. Good luck!

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