The SCARF Model: Brain-Based Ideas for Collaborating With Others


The SCARF Model: Brain-Based Ideas for Collaborating With Others


In 2008, after interviewing researchers in neuroscience and psychology, Dr. David Rock summarized his findings in a model of behaviour based on three basic principles: people treat emotional or social threats with the same level of intensity as physical threats and rewards; people’s ability to make good decisions and collaborate is weakened when they are in a threatened state; and threat response in people is more common than reward response and often needs to be carefully managed in social interactions.

While none of this is news to anyone having worked with challenging projects, clients or employees, Rock’s research led him to create the acronym SCARF to explain the five basic triggers that cause someone to react with a defensive or threat-based emotional reaction:

  • Status – When someone feels more or less important than another, they will either act emotionally defensive or collaboratively, depending on how they are presented with information about their own actions.
  • Certainty – When someone feels that they can reliably predict and control themselves and their environment, they will act with less defensiveness when presented with a challenge.
  • Autonomy – Generally, people react badly when they feel they are not autonomously able to control their own decisions and choices.
  • Relatedness – When someone can relate or find “common ground” with another person, they will generally be less defensive, because they believe the other person to be like them in outlook and choices.
  • Fairness – Depending on the person’s perception of the level of fairness, they will create a negative or cooperative response to a decision made around but not with

Essentially, your subconscious reacts to the world in an “approach and avoid” pattern you aren’t really aware is operating under the surface: you will naturally avoid things that feel threatening or bad (such as a dark alley or an overly obnoxious colleague) and will move toward or feel an affinity with things that you associate with positive feelings (such as a warm, sunny café table or a sales associate with a genuine smile).

These are subconscious activities that have kept us as humans alive for millennia. And if you are mindful of this threat/reward activity in your daily interactions, you can have a more positive experience in working with people.

What Are Your Response Triggers?

First things first though: you need to become more aware of your own threat and reward responses. If you aren’t aware of your own response triggers, you won’t be able to mindfully approach others with offers to collaborate or instruct. To become aware, you need to consider the last five interactions you had with people that were good, and five that were less than ideal.

In thinking about these interactions, consider what was good about them and what was not so great. You may want to record your thoughts for further reflection. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What actually happened that needed your response?
  2. How did you feel about the interaction as a whole experience?
  3. How did you feel in the moment where “it” went wrong?
  4. How did you feel in the moment where “it” was a good experience?
  5. In hindsight, which of the five triggers did you react to: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, or fairness?

When you finish thinking about your five to ten experiences, you will begin to see patterns in your own behaviours. Being mindful of your own reactions and behaviours will help you think of the other person you’re working with from a more distanced perspective. The old adage, “walk a mile in their shoes,” is an appropriate one.

For example, approaching someone to collaborate or correct their work with the idea that your own beliefs and reactions are the same as theirs can lead you into trouble. It would be a good idea to begin by examining how each of you likes to communicate and working with the other person on their terms rather than your own.

Breaking Down SCARF Reactions – and What Triggered Them


If you felt your status was threatened, was it because you believed your words and actions should have carried more weight or impression with your colleague? Did you feel that you were being dismissed or overlooked?

People will feel threatened if their status is not acknowledged and they believe they are either equal to or above the current situation or group or feel less equal to those with whom they are collaborating. You can put people at ease by acknowledging their external status, reputation, or experience with the task at hand.


If you felt uncertain about how your work, conversation, or project would go, did you feel less committed to the work? Were you comforted or disillusioned by the commitment of others to the task at hand?

People may be less committed and therefore less likely to contribute fully to the project if they don’t know:

  • where a project begins or ends
  • how important the work is with respect to the larger stakeholders or organizational plans
  • where their own place is in the project

Consider using agendas, milestones, responsibility charts and regular reporting on projects to help everyone feel that their work is acknowledged, accepted, and being used.


If you felt like you were not being listened to, not being respected for your time or activities, or were being “railroaded” into a decision, did you react by being less attached to the work and decisions? Or, did you increase your intensity with your communication?

People will feel threatened if they do not believe that they have the ability to make their own decisions or that their choices or “votes” are not being considered in the final work product or plan. You can help people feel that they are able to contribute on their own by acknowledging the work done, recording votes, and listening carefully to those who are disagreeing.


Did you feel as if the other person just didn’t understand you – or that they were so understanding that you felt they were just mimicking you? Then you were experiencing a flight response in relatedness.

People need to feel trust in order to fully commit to collaboration and development. Without trust, there can be no real sharing or vulnerability when it comes to working together on tough negotiations or over long hours. You can increase trust in your collaborative work by making yourself vulnerable or open to discussing your own concerns and ideas.


If you felt as if the interactions you were having with your collaborator were shallow, disingenuous, or unfair, how quickly did you want to get away from the situation or person altogether?

People’s sense of fairness isn’t always at the same level and it is important to discuss what “fair” means to all parties concerned. Having open conversations up-front about responsibilities, timelines, and work levels will help to build trust and a sense of fair play that allows all parties to work together in a more collaborative environment.

Learn more

If you are interested in learning more about the SCARF model or brain-based techniques for collaboration and influence, you should visit the Neuroleadership Institute website or consider purchasing Dr. David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work.



The information provided on this page is intended to provide general information. The information does not take into account your personal situation and is not intended to be used without consultation from accounting and financial professionals. Allan Madan and Madan Chartered Accountant will not be held liable for any problems that arise from the usage of the information provided on this page.


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