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What is the SCARF Model? | Video

What is the SCARF Model?

Social behaviors – like those we see in and around our projects – are driven by two urges: to minimize the perceived threats, and to maximize potential rewards. But what are the sources of threat and reward in the social domain? That is the question answered by David Rock’s SCARF Model.

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Social Behaviors

Social behaviors are driven by the same brain systems as those that drive our survival responses. David Rock developed a model of five domains of social experience that can trigger our reward and threat responses:

  1. Status 
    – our social position in relation to others around us and our sense of personal worth
  2. Certainty 
    – how predictable future events seem to be
  3. Autonomy
    – How much control we feel we have over our lives and of events around us
  4. Relatedness
    – Our sense of being connected to others and safe among them
  5. Fairness
    – Our perception of justice, equity, and respect, and how reasonably we feel we are treated 

SCARF Domains Activate Threat and Reward

These domains can all activate the primary threat and reward circuits in our brains. Our brains will try to categorize each new stimulus as either:

  • Good: approach it – or
  • Bad: avoid it

The Role of the Amygdala

And, once we have learned the nature of a stimulus, we store the learned approach/avoid response in our amygdala. When we encounter it again, the level of activation of our amygdala dictates the strength of our emotional response to the stimulus.

This is important because the Approach/Avoid response takes control of our limbic system and has a big effect on our cognitive performance. 

  • Rewards trigger interest, confidence, and creativity. We are more willing to engage with people and events
  • Threats inhibit detailed perception and subtle thinking in favor of generalization and defensive behaviors

Using the SCARF Model

You can use the SCARF model to provide your team members (and stakeholders) with a safe and emotionally nourishing workplace environment.


  • DO provide positive feedback and praise, reward good work, offer training
  • DON’T criticize publicly, over-instruct, exclude people


  • DO ask about expectations, set expectations, share strategy and plans, explain clearly, 
  • DON’T spring changes on people, act unpredictably, keep secrets


  • DO delegate whole tasks, offer choices, engage them in decision-making
  • DON’T micromanage, present a fait accompli, use authoritarian leadership


  • DO encourage socializing, mentor, be friendly, share stories, ask after relatives, set up team meetings
  • DON’T break promises, create competition, prohibit social conversations, isolate people


  • DO recognize successes, treat people with equity and respect, establish values and ground rules – and stick to them, be open and transparent
  • DON’T play favorites, discriminate, fudge or obscure rules, make unfair expectations

Summary of the SCARF Model

Use the SCARF model to choose interactions that:

  • minimize threats and 
  • maximize rewards 

in each of these five domains. 

David Rock’s 2008 paper ‘SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others.’

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About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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