FOSTERING STRONGER COLLABORATION IN TEAMS THROUGH THE SCARF MODEL


One of the crucial skills needed in today’s world is the ability to collaborate with others. In this interconnected society, improving cooperation, communication and col-laboration are crucial tasks that company leaders need to attend to. However, as companies scale and grow in size, the challenge of collaborating and engaging peo-ple becomes even more pronounced.


How might we foster stronger collaboration in our teams as we scale?


The answer lies on understanding the drivers of social behaviors and can be explained through neuroscience. The SCARF model is a brain-based model created by David Rock that focuses on how people interact socially. The foundation for the SCARF model lies in our brain’s need to either minimize danger or maximize reward as we respond to our environment. Several studies on the brain have shown how these approach-avoid responses are socially tuned to our day to day behaviors.


Brain scans revealed that the limbic system, specifi-cally the part that is tuned into threats, the amygdala, processes stimuli before conscious awareness. This switching between two modes happen in less than a fifth of a second, well before we have become consciously aware of any threat.

The three underlying premises of the SCARF model are:

  1. Our brain reacts in the same way to social need as to our primary needs like food and water.

  2. People behave in ways that try to minimize perceived threats and maximize rewards.

  3. We feel threatened more frequently and more intensely than we feel rewarded. This implies that we need to put a much greater weight on efforts intended to generate a reward response, and take great pains to avoid triggering a threat response.


As well as these central themes, the SCARF model also encompasses five domains or dimensions of human social experience. These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associ-ated networks) of the brain. These are: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.


Status is about one’s relative importance to others. As leaders, be on the lookout for opportunities that can el-evate the status of team members without running the risk of leaving others behind. One of the studies showed that a reduction in status resulting from being left out of an activity lit up the same regions of the brain as phys-ical pain. How can this be addressed? Here are some simple strategies to try:

  • For example, use inclusive language like “we’, our, us”.

  • Did you know that just saying “I have feedback for you” already activates threat? Giving regular positive feedback to make people more comfortable with feedback is one way to make our brain more comfortable with this.

  • Showcase learning and improvement within the team; putting emphasis on strengths.

  • Focus on creating an environment of self-assessment.

Certainty relates to being able to predict the future. As leaders, we need to provide sufficient certainty with-out stifling creativity. This also entails giving a sense of assurance about what the future holds. Change easily triggers our threat responses. To minimize this we need more openness in the workplace. When we meet ex-pectations and are given certainty it activates a reward response and increases dopamine levels in the brain. Here are simple strategies to promote certainty:

  • Transparency provides certainty. Share details with your team, especially in times of restructuring.

  • Have clear agendas for meetings or breakdown of projects and tasks.

  • When going through projects, tasks or challenges it is important to be clear about the next steps.

  • MIT Human Dynamics Lab’s research shows that the best teams communicate frequently. Provide means for open communication by creating routines/ rituals within your organization that allows for open dialogue, connection and sharing.

Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. It is our perception of our sense of control over events and highlights the importance of giving choices. How do we empower people to have a degree of self-governance at work? Here are some strategies to elevate autonomy in the workplace:

  • Allow team members greater scope to plan their schedule and their activities

  • Ensure that team members have a sense of par-ticipation and ownership of the process.

  • Provide goal flexibility.

  • Communicate clear boundaries.

Relatedness is a sense of safety with others. It equates to our sense of belonging. As leaders we need to cul-tivate a culture of trust and teamwork. Here are some strategies to promote relatedness among teams:

  • Have rituals/routines or practices for checking-in with each other.

  • Provide spaces for interaction. Create a “watering hole” where people can convene.

  • Use video conferences instead of audio when possible.

Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people. When a person thinks something is unfair, the brain automatically reacts with the avoid-response and goes into a defensive mode. As leaders it is our task to provide transparency, increase level of communication and involvement, and, provide clear ground rules and objectives to minimize the perceived unfairness. Here are other strategies to try to promote fairness:

  • Make your values and convictions visible. Create a company manifesto or creed that highlights your company’s stance.

  • Have clear guidelines for promotion and recognition.

David Rock, creator of the SCARF model, asks: What is it like when you work with someone who

  • Shows you how great you are increasing your status?

  • Provides really clear expectations (increasing your certainty)?

  • Lets you make decisions (increasing your autonomy)?

  • And what if they trust you and there is a human bond created between you (increasing your relatedness)?

  • And finally, what if they treat you fairly and you know that they are fair (increasing your fairness)?

Rock’s model describes a set of neurological dynamics at work in every social setting. These neurological mechanisms describe the specific interpersonal threats and rewards that have the most power to affect us and govern our behaviors. Therefore, you can use the SCARF model to plan interactions with other people to minimize threats and maximize rewards in each of the five domains. Leaders who understand these dynam-ics can effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change.


This article was written and published in the book Scale from the BASE Up: Build, Advance, Sustain and Elevate Your Business.