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What’s YOUR SCARF? Part 1: The Meaning

SCARF is a model to help you navigate situations, personally and professionally. Find out what it is and how it can help you.

October 2023
As human, we strive to define meaning in our thoughts and actions, and sometimes reflect: Why did I do that? Why am I feeling this way? What led me to make that choice or decision? OR we feel STUCK and don’t know why.
Here is a simple model to get unstuck and provide more meaning to your actions – SCARF. In this two-part blog, my goal is to explain:
  • What is it? 
  • How the brain works?
  • How can you use it in your personal and professional life?

NeuroLeadership Institute Education

What is it? & How the brain works?

SCARF is a cognitive model (Rock, 2008) for quickly and easily recalling the potential impact of your actions on others (and other’s actions on you) that can enable possibilities of different choices

This model can be used in any profession- business leaders, educators, or employees, across any industry… ANYONE looking to INFLUENCE others.

Framework: Points to Keep in Mind

  • It is a positive approach to evaluating a situation and looking at potential options.
  • The brain is geared towards processing emotional threats and rewards the same way as we experience physical threats and rewards.  
  • We want more of a good thing:  Our perception and experiences of reality can be colored by a “toward” response – seeing opportunities, options, and feeling positive. This creates a positive environment to make decisions, collaborate, solve problems, and focus on feel-good triggers in our brain. On the other side: the “away” response, we experience flight, feel scared, anxious, or nervousness.

Domains: What Makes-Up SCARF

SCARF is made up of 5 “domains” that are universal drivers for all human beings. Each of us have preferences of one domain being more important to us than others.  Understanding these domains helps us navigate social and professional environment.  

Here is the meaning and example of each domain: 
  • Status– Less than or better than.   “We desire status because it signifies that others value us- that we have a place of importance in the group and therefore are connected to the group” (Liebermann, 2009).
We want to be valued. This boils down to what we may call the peaking order or social status.  For example, when I get “kudos” for a job well done by my manager, I feel good. The feel good “dopamine” hormone is released that triggers a good feeling and creates more security and confidence about myself.  On the flipside, if I arrive late to work and get the stare from my manager as I walk into my office, the stress hormone cortisol is released that causes tension and insecurity. 
  • CertaintyAbility to predict outcomes.  “The brain likes to know what is going on by recognizing patterns in the world.  It likes to think ahead and picture the future, mapping out how things will be, not just for the moment, but also for the longer term.” (Rock, 2009).  
We want certainty.  It is the need for clarity and the ability to make accurate predictions about the future.  The brain is designed to manage more moderate levels of uncertainty.  Certainty makes us feel safe. For example, say you suddenly get called into a meeting without any explanation of what will be discussed.  Your cortisol levels increase because you do not know what will happen to you.  On the flipside, if your leader gives you a heads-up that she would like to discuss an upcoming sales presentation, then the “negative” hormone is reduced, and you are more at ease going into the discussion. 
  • Autonomy– Sense of control.  “A perception of reduced autonomy because of being micromanaged – can generate a threat response.  Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes much less stress response” (Rock, 2009).   
This is all about having control over events in your life, and the perception that one’s behavior has an impact on the outcome of a situation.  In any given situation, we desire a “toward” response.  An example is when your manager gives you an assignment AND TELLS you how to do it.  If this domain is important to you, you feel micromanaged…thinking… I am an adult. I know how to do this.  Let me do it my way.   As long as I get you your results on-time, within budget, and with integrity. 
  • Relatedness– In-group or out group.  “Social connections are essentially the original Internet, connecting different pockets of intelligence to make each pocket more than it would otherwise be by itself.” (Lieberman, 2009).  
As humans, we want to feel belonged, a connection.  We feel connected based on similarities. On a nonconscious level, our brain assesses and classifies whether somebody is considered a friend or enemy. When we connect with people we like and trust, our brain decreases the stress hormone cortisol and increases the feel-good one dopamine.  Think about the last time you spoke to a peer who criticized your idea that left you feeling ‘blah.’  You might consider them a threat and experience negative emotions the next time you see them. On the flipside, if you sit with a friend who encourages you to pursue your next big dream, you are more likely to trust them. 
  • Fairness– Perception of fair exchange. “The extent to which employees perceive decisions to be fair in their place of work can account for 20% of the difference in their productivity” (Liberman, 2009). 

We like to feel like we have been treated in a fair manner. Fairness is equal access to resources.  It is the just and non-biased exchange between people. When we feel that we have been treated unfairly, we experience an array of emotions such as disappointment, anger, and frustration.  For example, if you feel you have been treated fairly in a performance review, there is a feeling of excitement and happiness in receiving that raise or bonus.

By understanding what SCARF is and how your brain works, you begin to peel the onion on how to evaluate situations and adjust.  Stay tuned for part 2 on how to apply it!

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