Leadership conversation skills: SCARF model of neuroscience in social interactions, collaboration and relationships

I first mentioned SCARF in an article about neuroscience and leadership Leadership: Lessons from Star Trek and Neuroscience – Kim Tasso back in 2012. There David Rock talked about the neuroscience of leadership – the need to still your mind, improve emotional regulation, watch non-verbal signals and take care with feedback.  On feedback he mentioned research by Naomi Eisenberger showing that the brain treats social pain much like physical pain. Leadership conversation skills: SCARF model of neuroscience in social interactions, collaboration and relationships

The SCARF model

The premise of the SCARF model is that the brain makes us behave in certain ways to minimize threats and maximize rewards. Additionally, the drivers in the brain that take the threat and reward approach do so as if they were a primary need, such as food and water.

Neuroscience research findings help us see in very tangible ways (for example, by using functional MRIs) that our social needs are on par with our need for food and water. This new science has big implications for the workplace — a highly social situation.

During interactions, our brain is busy classifying everything with a “reward” or “threat” feeling in our body, which then registers in our behaviour. Our brains want to know, is something good for us or bad for us?

The SCARF model summarizes these two themes within a framework that captures the common factors that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations. You can apply and test this model in any situation in which people collaborate as part of a group.

The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

  • Status is about where you are in relation to others around you. Your sense of personal worth
  • 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 impartial and just exchanges between people

Manage conversations

The idea is to use this model to manage interactions to minimize threats and maximize rewards in each of these five domains.

Then the objective is to activate reward response to motivate people more effectively using internal rewards.

When the brain and body register a social threat in these dimensions, they light up the networks of the brain that register the threat of physical pain, a finding that has substantial implications for leadership practices.

The SCARF model improves people’s capacity to understand and ultimately modify their own and other people’s behaviour in social situations like the workplace, allowing them to be more adaptive.

The model is especially relevant for leaders or anyone looking to build trust and influence others.

The more we understand about the workings of our brain and body responses, the more we understand what is happening to us moment-to-moment, whether that is why we can’t think straight after a long day or what’s going on with a relationship in our life.

To understand which of the five SCARF domains are key drivers for you, there is a free online self-assessment The NLI SCARF® Assessment | NeuroLeadership Institute

Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadership Journal, 1, 1–9.

The table shows the ideal components of conversations to activate reward states and things to avoid that activate the threat state.

Five domains of human social experience (Drivers of our behaviour) How we activate the reward state in others Results of reward state How we activate a threat state in others Consequences of threat state
Status Positive feedback


Public acknowledgement


Allow staff to provide feedback to themselves in performance reviews

More cognitive resources available to us


More insights


More ideas for action


Fewer perceptual errors


Wider field of view – more open




Unsolicited advice

Stressor hormones released


Reduced resources (oxygen and glucose) for brain function


Decreased cognition


Reduced working memory


Inhibits the brain perceiving subtler signals required for solving nonlinear problems in the insight or “aha” experience


Generalise more easily, which increases the chances of erring on the safe side and shrinking from opportunities


Increased defensive reactions in interactions


Small stressors more likely to be perceived as large stressors


Reduces range and field of view


Err on the side of pessimism

Certainty Clear expectations


Set clear goals


Realistic project schedules

Lack of transparency





Autonomy Provide choices









Constant authoritative leadership

Relatedness Friendly gestures


Foster socialising



Foster internal competition


Prohibit socialising in the workplace



Fairness Transparent decision


Open communication




Clear rules

Unequal treatment


Unclear rules and guidelines


Lack of communication


The full research report: SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others (nsw.gov.au)

It is also a helpful tool to understand what motivates employees. 5 Ways to Spark (or Destroy) Your Employees’ Motivation (neuroleadership.com)

During my training as a counsellor and psychotherapist I learned a lot about the fight, flight, freeze and fawn responses triggered by perceived threat. Typically, humans recover from these states quickly although trauma can fix people in one of these modes.

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