If you’re not using this model to lead change – you’re flying blind

Wish you had a crystal ball to predict how people would respond to change? Need to know what they’ll be most concerned about? Dr. David Rock at the NeuroLeadership Institute developed the SCARF model. (The NeuroLeadership Institute is also referenced in a recent post Change and the Science of Inclusion)

The model teaches that there are five elements of social interaction that human beings rely on; we have honed our ‘spidey sense’ about these elements over millions of years to ensure our survival.

  • Status: Our position relative to our community
  • Certainty: What we rely on to construct our ability to react, decide or move to action
  • Autonomy: What enables us to function independently
  • Relatedness: Elements that connect us to others in a relational, social way
  • Fairness: Treatment that is perceived as ‘just’ and ‘impartial’

Every individual places a different level of value on each of these elements. For example, some might be able to tolerate lower levels of certainty due to a well-developed comfort with ambiguity.

Now, here’s where this gets fun.

When crafting your approach to different types of change, the SCARF model helps you discern where impacted employees will be most concerned first (although they might experience is a  subconscious emotion). It will enable you to discern what concerns and questions you’ll need to address first in your change planning efforts.

And…the SCARF model teaches that loss in one area can be counter-balanced by gain in another element of the model. For example, if someone is losing status, you can alleviate that loss by giving more autonomy or relatedness.

Let me illustrate this more tangibly, and then we’ll do a matching game. (Yep! A game!)


Q: To get your 9-year-old son to clean his room, which element of SCARF should you lead with to entice him to complete the task?

A: To get your 9-year-old son to clean his room – Status or Fairness. Maybe not the best example, because I legitimately think there are two answers here.

You can use status…proclaiming him the best room cleaner among his peers or siblings. You can give him a special treat – the best seat at the baseball game, the honor of choosing the Friday night movie, or a ‘hall pass’ to get out of helping you go to the grocery store. To increase status, find a mechanism to help him stand out and clearly put his room-cleaning skills (or commitment or effort) at the forefront.

You can lean heavily on Fairness. What’s the quid pro quo exchange for completing the room cleaning? What is a fair trade in his eyes (remember…his, not yours). Or, determine together what needs to be done and how frequently it needs to be completed. When we are able to lend our own voice to the decision, our perception of ‘fairness’ increases exponentially.

Alight, now for some workplace questions:

Q: In a Merger and Acquisition, on Day 1, which element of SCARF do we need to focus on first in order to decrease anxiety?

Q: In a reorganization, which element of SCARF should be your primary focus when announcing the changes?

Q: In a move from offices to an unassigned workspace, which element of SCARF creates the most risk?

Think about it….


Got it?

Alright, check your answers below.

Ready to find out how you did?


A: In a Merger and Acquisition – Certainty. On day 1, an incredible amount of uncertainty is introduced into the lives of the acquired employees.

  • Before you can teach them how to use the company’s new tools, make decisions on benefits, and understand processes (all elements of building autonomy), you must tell them whether or not they have a job, what their role will be, how they fit in the bigger vision, and what the roadmap will be for introducing them into the larger company.

A: In a reorganization – Relatedness. (This is assuming there is not an accompanying reduction in force or position elimination. If that’s the case, amplifying Certainty is the key and you should see the answer for Merger and Acquisition, above).

  • In a team reshuffle, helping create connected-ness between team members is your primary lead.
  • As a manager, you need to form a 1:1 relationship with new team members, and the team members need to build bonds between each other. Focus on some sort of social interaction (a dinner, a volunteer activity, etc) to expedite connection making.

A: In a move from offices to an unassigned workspace – Status. Eventually, this may become an outdated notion, but having an office is still associated with having status by most modern corporate employees. If your organization is moving to a more open workspace, chances are office walls are coming down. For those who had offices previously, status takes a big hit.

  • Figure out opportunities to preserve status – such as having the leadership team hold weekly meetings where information they have access to is shared more broadly.
  • Or, lean into one of the other elements of SCARF, like relatedness. Now that they can’t hunker down behind a closed door, they can build connections with the team.
    • This will happen naturally, but you can catalyze it through a more formal skip-level program, or some sort of social activity the leadership team hosts (to be sure they attend!).
    • Have team members share some information about themselves through a weekly newsletter or central portal or physical wall that offers information about who they are and what they care about.


How did you do? 3 for 3?

SCARF is a reliable cornerstone for change planning and diagnosing many types of human behaviors and reactions. I encourage you to learn more:

  • SCARF Animated Explanation (3:50): In under four minutes, watch the ‘scribe’ draw illustrations to explain how and why this model works

1 Comment

  1. Gad zooks, this is powerful stuff! Does SHRM incorporate info like this in their trainings?

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