How to Influence People Using the SCARF Model

Understanding the dynamics that foster cooperation and mitigate conflict is paramount in leadership and interpersonal relationships. The SCARF Model, developed by David Rock in 2008, is a robust framework. It delineates five key domains that influence human behaviour in social contexts: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. By addressing these domains, leaders can significantly enhance their influence and navigate complex interpersonal dynamics more effectively. This model is particularly relevant in scenarios that aim to foster a positive organisational culture and to improve team collaboration.

This relevance was starkly illustrated in my recent coaching conversation with the Operations manager of an NGO engaged in charity work within the informal settlements of the greater Johannesburg area in South Africa. Despite the noble purpose of the organisation, which typically attracts individuals of high moral calibre, James (a pseudonym) found himself embroiled in an escalating conflict with a team member. Each interaction seemed to deepen their rift, pushing their relationship towards an imminent breakdown.

Such situations are not uncommon in both professional and personal spheres. It was precisely these types of challenges that inspired the development of the SCARF Model. Through the lens of this encounter and others similar, this article explores how the SCARF Model can influence people positively and mend the fraying threads of interpersonal relationships.

The SCARF Model and where it comes from

David Rock developed the SCARF Model in 2008 and published it in his paper “SCARF: A Brain Model for Collaborating with and Influencing Others.” The model seeks to help us understand how to influence people. It aims to understand the conditions under which people will respond positively or negatively, particularly in work contexts where one person asks another person to do something.

The model rests on the minimise danger and maximise reward principle. This means the brain only responds in one of two ways: an approach response or an avoid response. The Amygdala, a small collection of cells near the base of the brain, plays a central role in producing these responses. The reactions themselves are pre-conscious. They are part of the brain’s information processing before we become aware.

The Avoid-Response

Things that invoke an avoid response, like a threatening boss, tend to have the following negative consequences:

Firstly, it diverts resources from the prefrontal cortex, harming conscious cognitive processing. This makes us slower to respond and less able to problem-solve.

In addition, the increased levels in the brain “overload” it and make it less able to perceive some of the subtle things in the situation. This makes us less open to picking up on the small things around us that are helpful to making the right choice. It will also hurt creativity and innovative thinking because it reduces our ability to think of alternatives.

Lastly, the avoid-response involves the perception of danger and makes people take the safe option. We become averse to taking risks and will shrink away from new opportunities. In the end, we will become less engaged in tasks, particularly if they are complex, and will be less effective.

Unfortunately, the human brain has a bias towards the avoid-response.

The Approach-Response

On the other hand, the approach response inspires engagement and creativity. An engaged person is happy to do difficult things and take risks when necessary. Things that invoke an approach response will enable engagement in us.

This state will also include increased dopamine levels, one of the brain’s feel-good hormones. This means the approach response will consist of positive emotions like happiness, joy, and optimism.

How to influence people using the SCARF Model

SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. The model suggests these are the five social domains influencing our behaviour in social contexts. Each domain has its own avoid-response and approach-response triggers.


The SCARF model suggests that our sense of Status is based on our relative position to others. Our perception of status is always relative to a particular person or group and depends on the activity we are engaged in. We constantly compare with those around us, often leading to mental hierarchies. The thought of losing status and dropping down the hierarchy can elicit a strong threat response in individuals.

A status threat can be as simple and innocuous as giving instructions, giving feedback, or publicly reprimanding someone. When faced with these situations, it is worth being mindful of this risk. An emotionally aware person should be sensitive to the status dynamics at play in the situation. Ultimately, however, the risk is primarily influenced by the degree of trust in the relationship.

On the other hand, status can be deliberately used to elicit a reward response. Giving positive feedback in public, paying attention to their performance, and recognising improvements are effective ways of producing a reward-response.

There is the risk that these insights are used manipulatively, and some people will use them that way. However, the positive message of the status domain is that we should be careful with interactions that risk making a person feel inferior and find as many opportunities as possible to elevate the person’s self-esteem. This will contribute to them becoming the best they can be in that context. If this is the intent, then it becomes very powerful.

Let’s explore simple, practical steps and questions to best use the SCARF model’s Status domain in everyday interactions. These ideas will help you communicate more thoughtfully, build stronger relationships, and celebrate achievements to influence and motivate those around you positively.

Actionable Takeaways:

  1. Practice Mindful Communication: Before giving feedback or instructions, especially in public, gauge the potential impact on the individual’s status. Aim for a constructive approach that maintains or enhances their self-esteem.
  2. Build Trust: Cultivate a supportive environment where feedback is seen as a tool for growth, not a critique of worth. This diminishes the threat to status and fosters a culture of trust.
  3. Recognise Achievements: Make it a habit to acknowledge improvements and contributions publicly. This not only boosts the individual’s status but also motivates continued excellence.

Reflective Questions:

  1. How do I currently communicate feedback? Reflect on whether your approach considers the status implications for the recipient.
  2. What opportunities can I find today to positively recognise someone’s contribution or improvement? Consider specific instances where you can uplift someone’s status meaningfully.
  3. How can I create a more trust-filled environment that supports status without creating competition? Think about strategies to balance recognition and support for all team members, fostering a cohesive and motivated group.

By incorporating these considerations and questions into your daily interactions, you can leverage the understanding of the Status domain from the SCARF model to influence people more effectively and contribute to a positive and productive environment.


David Rock tells us that the brain craves certainty and wants to find recognisable patterns in things. This allows the brain to make meaningful predictions about the world. When the brain senses uncertainty, it forces us to attend to it. We have to give the uncertainty conscious attention. When our uncertainty is large enough, it becomes debilitating.

Managing uncertainty when interacting with people is important, especially in work. When handing over a task, it is crucial to shed as much light on it as possible. Help wherever possible to make them feel confident about the game’s rules and what needs to be done. Also, encourage them to demonstrate courage and resilience in the face of uncertainty. Facing uncertainty is, after all, an effective way of building character.

It is also essential to agree on the uncertainties. Inform the person of what you don’t know. Then, decide where the person must start with what is known. In this way, uncertainties can be kept to one side. Starting with what you know helps you figure out what you don’t know. Less of it will be uncertain when you need to give that stuff attention.

Embracing the Certainty domain within the SCARF model, we introduce actionable steps and reflective questions to help manage uncertainty in interactions and tasks.

Actionable Takeaways:

  1. Clarify Expectations: Provide clear instructions and context to minimise uncertainty when assigning tasks. This helps individuals feel more secure and focused.
  2. Encourage Open Communication: Foster an environment where it’s okay to discuss uncertainties. Being transparent about what is unknown can reduce anxiety and promote problem-solving.
  3. Support Resilience: Encourage team members to view challenges as opportunities for growth. Providing tools and strategies to handle uncertainty can build confidence and resilience.

Reflective Questions:

  1. Am I communicating tasks and expectations? Reflect on improving clarity to reduce uncertainty for your team or peers.
  2. How can I foster an environment that embraces uncertainty as a part of growth? Consider ways to support and encourage resilience in the face of unknowns.
  3. What steps can I take to ensure uncertainties are addressed proactively? Think about strategies for identifying and discussing uncertainties early on.

By consciously applying these strategies, you can leverage the SCARF model’s Certainty domain to create a more productive and positive environment where uncertainties are managed effectively and individuals feel more secure and motivated.


Autonomy is really about having choices. It is about having the right to make decisions that determine your circumstances. A perceived increase in autonomy is experienced as rewarding. The feeling of being in control is even associated with specific health benefits. This is why we emphasise empowerment in our leadership work.

Many things limit our autonomy. In a work context, controls do this. All work environments put restrictions on what we can and can’t do. Many of these are legitimate. But human beings have a bias towards control. This is because we are risk averse. The result is that our work environments very quickly become overly controlling.

This has a stifling effect on autonomy. People feel constricted and suffocated in their jobs, and incrementally removing these controls where appropriate produces a reward response. This is why empowering work contexts tend to engage people.

The following actionable takeaways and questions are designed to foster a culture of autonomy, leading to increased engagement, satisfaction, and productivity in personal and professional environments.

Actionable Takeaways:

  1. Promote Decision-Making: Empower individuals by delegating decision-making where possible. This enhances their sense of control and engagement.
  2. Evaluate Restrictions: Regularly assess work environment restrictions to determine if they can be relaxed without compromising objectives, thereby increasing autonomy.
  3. Encourage Initiative: Create a culture where taking initiative is rewarded, reinforcing the value of autonomy in achieving personal and collective goals.

Reflective Questions:

  1. Where can I provide more choice or control in my team’s tasks?
  2. How can I reduce unnecessary controls that limit autonomy?
  3. What steps can I take to encourage more independent decision-making?

Focusing on these areas can help you apply the Autonomy principle effectively to foster a more motivated, engaged, and healthy work environment.


Relatedness is about being part of a group and deciding whether someone is a friend or a foe. People naturally like to congregate around others who give them a feeling of belonging. Human beings have a strong drive to be part of the group and to shun people who are not part of the group.

Whether someone is a friend or foe is pre-conscious; our brain decides before we are conscious. Meeting someone new often produces a threat response in the brain. When interacting with someone we do not trust, we have a similar threat response.

The number one way to mitigate the threat response is to get to know one another. Familiarity breeds closeness and comfort. Also, very importantly, from a leadership perspective, you must remain trustworthy. This means that you must consistently do what is appropriate even when doing so is not in your immediate self-interest. No matter how well a person knows you, you will elicit a negative response if they believe you are untrustworthy.

Other more mundane measures to increase relatedness reward responses include setting up clearly defined buddy systems, establishing coaching and mentoring relationships, encouraging personal sharing during group meetings, and other measures designed to foster closer connections between people.

To enhance Relatedness in your environment, consider these actionable steps and reflective questions inspired by the SCARF model:

Actionable Takeaways:

  1. Foster Connection: Actively create opportunities for team members to get to know each other personally, such as team-building activities or shared projects.
  2. Demonstrate Trustworthiness: Be consistent in your actions and decisions, showing that you are reliable and have the team’s best interests at heart.
  3. Encourage Openness: Create a safe space for personal sharing and vulnerability within groups to build deeper connections.

Reflective Questions:

  1. How can I improve my trustworthiness in the eyes of my team?
  2. What steps can I take to foster a stronger sense of belonging among team members?
  3. How can I create more opportunities for my team to connect on a personal level?

Applying these strategies can help build a sense of relatedness and belonging, which is crucial for a cohesive and motivated team.


David Rock argues that human beings find fair exchanges intrinsically rewarding. We have an innate propensity to enjoy doing what is appropriate and witnessing others doing the same. Unfair exchanges, on the other hand, produce a strong threat-response.

Avoiding a fairness threat response is as simple and challenging as being absolutely and consistently fair. Dissipating perceived unfairness where there is none is done by being completely transparent. Transparency takes courage, however, and runs the risk of producing a threat response in one of the other domains.

The best strategy is to be clear on ground rules and expectations upfront. Clarity here will facilitate transparency and, subsequently, fairness.

For applying the Fairness aspect of the SCARF model, consider these actionable steps and reflective questions:

Actionable Takeaways:

  1. Ensure Transparent Decision-Making: Share how decisions are made within the team or organisation to foster a sense of fairness.
  2. Encourage Equity: Strive for equal treatment and opportunities for all team members.
  3. Seek Feedback: Regularly ask for input on fairness perceptions and promptly address any concerns.

Reflective Questions:

  1. Do I apply policies and decisions uniformly?
  2. How can I improve transparency in my decision-making processes?
  3. What measures can I introduce to ensure everyone feels treated fairly?

Implementing these strategies can enhance the perception of fairness, contributing to a more positive and cooperative environment.

Implementing the SCARF Model in Leadership for Positive Impact

The SCARF Model emerges as a conceptual framework and a vital tool for understanding and navigating the complex neurological impacts of our interactions with others. It equips leaders with the insight to approach people in a manner mindful of the key domains affecting social behaviour: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. However, the utility of the SCARF Model extends beyond mere comprehension to the deliberate application of these principles in fostering environments of collaboration and trust.

A crucial aspect of leveraging the SCARF Model effectively lies in intent. Given its potent ability to influence, the model’s application teeters on the fine line between benevolence and manipulation. The leader’s underlying intent—whether to genuinely uplift and support others or to manipulate for self-serving purposes—determines the model’s impact. Therefore, a moment of introspection on our objectives and intentions is imperative as leaders. The question, “What am I trying to achieve, and why?” becomes a beacon guiding the ethical application of the SCARF Model.

Continuing your education is key for those eager to dive deeper and refine their leadership skills with the SCARF Model. Engaging with resources like Leadership: The Care & Growth Model can provide comprehensive insights into marrying the SCARF principles with broader leadership philosophies. Additionally, workshops and articles focusing on the SCARF Model offer practical strategies for implementation, enabling leaders to craft environments where individuals feel valued, understood, and motivated.

As we integrate the SCARF Model into our leadership practices, let us strive to wield this powerful tool with wisdom and integrity. Doing so will pave the way for more empathetic, effective, and transformative leadership.

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