That Was Not A Good Conversation!

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Do you ever have an encounter with a co-worker or leader where you walk away just feeling horrible?  You are not sure why but you just don’t feel good after the conversation.  Why does this happen?  What makes you feel this way after a discussion with a co-worker?  There is a relatively simple model that, once you understand it, you can effectively manage your reactions to others as well as more effectively lead and motivate.  It’s called the SCARF model.

It is the brain child of David Rock, author of “The Brain at Work.”  In the world of nonstop interactions, there is a need to improve the way people connect and work together.  If we can improve the way people interact, we will improve engagement in the workplace and improve the quality of life for employees and leaders.

The SCARF model operates on the principal that our brain’s purpose it to protect us and we are always identifying potential threats. The SCARF model focuses on five areas that have a significant impact on our emotions and productivity:

  • Status: Relative importance to others
  • Certainty: The ability to predict the future
  • Autonomy: A sense of control over events
  • Relatedness: Sense of safety with others
  • Fairness: A sense of fair exchange between people

These five areas activate in our brain the ‘reward’ or ‘threat’ circuitry.  For example, a perceived threat to one’s status at work activates similar brain networks as a threat to one’s life.  When an employee feels valued about their job, it’s biologically the same as a reward.  Each of these states can have a significant impact on problem solving, decision making, collaboration, and motivation.  For example, when you are feeling threatened by a boss who is undermining your credibility, you are less likely to be able to solve complex problems and more likely to make mistakes.

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Let’s walk through each area.


Status is about relative importance. In other words, the pecking order.  One’s sense of status increases when one feels better than another person.  In this case, the reward circuitry in the brain is activated.

How can you increase status?  For many organizations, this is about promotion. The problem with the promotion approach is that there are only a limited number of leadership positions. It may also result in people becoming leaders who are more competent individual contributors. There are other ways to increase status. For example, some feel a status increase when they are learning and improving, and attention is paid to this improvement.  Or when they are put on a new, innovative project.  Status can also increase when people are given positive feedback or a reward (intrinsic or extrinsic).


The brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict what is going to happen next.  The brain craves patterns and therefore, certainty.  If someone is not telling you the whole truth and you can detect it, it’s like having a beeping sound on your computer.  The beeping sound cannot be ignored until it’s resolved.  Uncertainties, such as not knowing your boss’ expectations can be highly debilitating.

Tools to increase certainty, even in times of change include:

  • Communicate with your employees
  • Break down a complex project into small steps
  • Establish clear expectations of what might happen
  • State clear objectives and where the organization is visa-ve these objectives


Autonomy is the perception of control over one’s environment.  A reduction in autonomy, such as being micro managed, can generate a strong threat response.  How often have you gone home after your boss micro-managed one of your projects, and just felt awful?

There are many things leaders can do to reduce the autonomy threat such as:

  • Instead of telling your team what to do, give them options to choose from
  • Create self-directed learning portals where employees can drive their personal growth
  • Allow people to organize their workflows
  • Create policies where employees know for which projects and areas can they can exercise their creativity and autonomy.


Yes, it’s still about middle school.  Relatedness involves deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group.  In fact, the brain assumes when we meet someone new, that they are a ‘foe’ or a threat.  This is why we feel better at a party when we know a few people.

How can we reduce the threat that comes from not knowing everyone at work? How can we create a collaborative environment for teams to function? Some ideas include:

  • Create social areas in the office, such collaborative spaces
  • Have people on teams share personal information about themselves
  • Encourage water cooler conversations
  • Build a mentoring program
  • Keep meetings small regarding the size where people can start to know each other


When things are unfair, this can have a highly emotional, threat, impact.   How often do you hear in the office, ‘it’s not fair.’  Fairness impacts not only the productivity who did not feel a sense of fairness. It also impacts those who they communicate with and increases their threat response as well.

Here are some examples when the fairness threat response may be triggered.

  • He has a different set of rules for Tom and Meg
  • They have all of this ‘talk’ about culture and values but its business as usual at the top

How can we reduce this threat that comes from perceived unfairness in the work environment?

  • Increase transparency
  • Increase communication
  • Increasing communication
  • Establish clear expectations
  • Establish ground rules and policies
  • Measure people on fairness, especially leaders

Knowing about the elements of the SCARF model helps you understand your reactions at work.  For example, why you feel terrible when someone has attacked you sense of status.  Knowing these elements also allows you to design ways to motivate yourself more effectively.  For example, during times of uncertainty and change, focus on building a sense of autonomy and putting together ideas for strategies.

Understanding this model can help people become better leaders, managers, and facilitators.  It’s a matter of keeping the model in mind in managing your own behavior, and understanding your own reactions to others at work.


Rock, D., & Cox, C. (2012). Scarf in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 4, 1-14