SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others

I remember hearing/reading about SCARF a few years back, but a recent conversation with a colleague made it top of mind for me again, so I decided to give it a deeper look.

In a nutshell, SCARF is a framework for understanding human social behavior through a neuroscience lens. It has broad applicability, prior to an interaction (predicting how people would react to certain conversation), during an interaction (helping to regulate responses to more tactical reactions) and after an interaction (explaining the root causes behind the outcome).

At its core, SCARF argues that human social behavior is dictated primarily by the human survival instinct, also known as approach-avoid, reward-threat, or fight-flight. SCARF then posits that human behavior can be analyzed and evaluated through the threats/rewards that a certain action triggers in each one of  5 domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.

Below is a very crude summary, meant to give you a tase of framework and how it can be applied:


Definition Examples of reducing threats and increasing rewards
Status One’s sense of importance relative to others Perf Reviews/Feedback  – Allowing people to give themselves feedback on their own performance

Paying attention / acknowledging learning and improvement

Certainty One’s need for clarity and the ability to make accurate predictions about the future Encourage planing, decompose large projects to small tasks, set clear expectations on what’s likely to happen and what are the desired outcomes

Make implicit concepts more explicit


Autonomy The sense of control over events in one’s life and the sense that one’s behavior has an effect on the outcome of the situation Provide choices/options rather than dictate a certain course of action

Give control over L&D, workflow mgmt, working hours, etc.

Relatedness One’s sense of connection to and security with another person (in-group vs. out-of-group) Informal meetings, share personal stories,

Clearly defined “buddy systems”, mentoring, or coaching programs. Small groups are safer than large groups

Fairness Just and non-biased exchange between peoples Increasing transparency, increasing level of communication and involvement about business issues.

Set clear ground rules, expectations and objectives. Or even better, let set their owns.


It’s worth noting that some situations / actions force an unaviodable threat in one domain. But thoughtful design can often times help mitigate its impact by offerring rewards in other domains.

A later paper, published 4 years after the original one, covers more recent developments in the study of each domain and the framework in general. Perhaps the most interesting findings have to do with the individual variation in SCARF profiles (different people may be more/less sensitive to threat/reward in a certain domain) and the interconnections between SCARF domains, namely: status and relatedness, and certainty and relatedness.

The authors identify several areas where SCARF can be applied: managing oneself, educating and training, coaching, leadership development and organizational systems.  After spending a week looking at coaching and organizational systems tasks through a SCARF lens, I’m positively surprised by its ability to guide towards better outcomes. It’s a tool that I plan to keep at the top of my toolbox more than I did in the past.


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