The SCARF Model®

person holding a green plant
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The SCARF Model was developed by David Rock in 2008. It may seem a deceptively simple model at first, but it creates a broad range of conversations to help develop you develop as well as the people around you and the team/s you lead.

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

The model depicts the possible reactions to the 5 areas when threatened or rewarded. In other words, if we recognise or help establish someone’s Status within a team, they will be more engaged. Threaten the Status and they may be less engaged, less productive and a flight risk!

First some definitions:

  • Status: Concerns an individual’s social standing, where do they fall in the pecking order.
  • Certainty: our brain’s ability to make accurate predictions about the future. Even if that prediction is that you’re sure you don’t know what’s coming.
  • Autonomy: The power to exert control over your environment.
  • Relatedness: feeling connected to other people—in particular people we identify as being similar to us.
  • Fairness: Humans have a hardwired desire for fairness. We seek a fair exchange of information, services and ideas. We also seek a fair exchange of respect, acknowledgement and a sense that we have been heard.

Applying SCARF

There is certainly more than one way to apply SCARF but I see benefit in the following:

  1. Delivering SCARF
  2. Developing SCARF

Delivering SCARF

Delivering SCARF is about providing each element to others. This might be seen as the role of a leader but it applies to anyone.

We can all raise the status of others. Acknowledge them, give them positive feedback, show appreciation, asking them to speak up in a meeting if you know they have something to contribute. It’s not difficult.

How can we provide certainty to our colleagues? What can we say and do that will help them be more confident and sure about the future? What information do you have that would be helpful? Do you have information you don’t fully understand and therefore not share it? If your team are relying on you, you may be putting certainty at risk!

How do we help them build the skills so they can achieve greater autonomy? What guidelines can they can work towards? Do you plan a direct report’s development with providing greater autonomy in mind? Do they know that?

How are we developing our relationships so they know they have something like a “best friend” at work? In the book, 12: The Elements of Great Managing, Wagner and Harter propose that,

“Something about a deep sense of affiliation with the people in an employee’s team drives him (sic) to do positive things for the business he (sic) would not otherwise do.”

To support this, you will likely find, when completing and reviewing exit interviews, the most common expression people provide is, “… the people were great … “

How can we ensure they know they are being treated fairly? This can be hard. Perhaps we use an internal compass. Do you suffer from the “horns or halo effect” where you consciously or, worse, subconsciously play favourites? (Worse be because you may not be aware that you do!)

Developing SCARF

Another aspect is taking responsibility to develop our own SCARF characteristics. These are similar questions but the responsibility is on ourselves to develop each elements of the model.

How can we raise our own status in order to make a greater contribution?

Can we take steps that will increase our own certainty? What research can we do? Who can we speak within the organisation? Is there product material we could read? All with the aim of being more confident within ourselves and, when the time is right helping others with this information.

Are we learning more about our role and responsibilities to allow greater autonomy because the boss trusts us? What are we demonstrating? What initiative are we showing?

Are we building our relationships with others in the team and across other teams?

Are we treating others fairly? How do we know and what can we do to ensure we meet this expectation?

The Consequences

One of the consequences of failing to consider these elements is staff turnover. I’ve seen this occur and I have been responsible for … fixing it!

I worked in an organisation where we had 40%+ staff turnover. It was just above the top of the industry range. We were turning over our whole staff every two years. As this was the resources industry (Mining & Gas) the cost of this was astronomical. Lose a good person and you had to replace them. If salaries were averaging $150k that meant recruitment costs were between $15k ands $30k. Do the math!

Twelve months later we were at 19%, just below the industry norm!

What did we do?

  • We increased out connection with your people.
  • We communicated what opportunities were available internally.
  • We developed recognition systems that truly valued people’s contribution.
  • We allowed the team to promote their areas to “recruit” internally.

Connection

We redoubled our efforts to remain in contact with people on site. We received feedback that once we placed them, we forgot them. More regular visits and news from “head office” were welcomed, rather than what was happening before. This showed we valued them and their opinions. They were connected to the company and felt part of something bigger. All of a sudden the greener grass elsewhere began to fade. (Status, Certainty, Relatedness)

Communication

We made sure they knew what was going on in the company. Many of these people knew colleagues on different projects and sites. And they talked. If we left a gap, they filled it in with their version of the “truth”. We worked to open the communication channels to get ahead of the rumour mill and keep in touch with those at risk. (Relatedness, Certainty)

Recognition

This was crucial. We developed mechanisms to recognise years of service, outstanding project work and anything else worth a mention. And when a client sent through a compliment, we shared it far and wide. Not just a “thanks” back to the client. (Status, Relatedness, Fairness)

Team Promotion Expo (see note below)

This started off as a beast of a project to organise but was an outstanding success. The premise being an internal expo. Teams were invited to set up stalls to promote what they were doing. “Be as creative as you like”. They promoted what they did at their site and used all sorts of methods to do so. Some showed skills in presentation we didn’t know they had! They let people know what skills they used on site, what skills were still needed or would be needed soon. This allowed others who were rolling off projects to look at options internally. This was a huge relief to many, as they didn’t want to go on to the open market. Having roles come up internally provided a great deal of peace of mind. And those needing the skills, gained people who knew the culture and the basics of the project already, this limiting a downturn in project productivity. (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness)

Conclusion

Admittedly, we can reverse engineer any successful strategy. However, looking at what we accomplished without SCARF in mind, demonstrates the benefits of the model. The principles hold true.

Reviewing these tactics, and how they significantly impacted turnover, provides a template for what to do across a number of critical organisational strategies.

Note: The expo, in many ways, demonstrated support for Deming’s 14 Total Quality Management Principles, in particular:

  • 8 – Drive out fear
  • 9 – Break down barriers between staff areas
  • 12 – Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship

Thoughts?

The R in SCARF

Why the R in SCARF is the most important element.

SCARF is a great tool for anyone, leader or not, to help improve the environment at work. (You can use this in your personal life as well.)

The basic premise is we operate by threat or reward. If something seems threatening, we work to avoid it. If something looks rewarding, we’ll move toward it.

When it comes to work environments, businesses and teams often look at material rewards to gain people’s cooperation, be it bonuses, gift cards, chocolates and time off, to name a few.

And they all have their place. (I am an anti “either/or” person. Things are seldom that black and white.)

But, using everyday human considerations, as described by the SCARF model, would go a long way to improving a workplace without additional monetary costs. Plus, it’s just a good thing to do.

But there needs to be a word of caution for anyone looking to adopt the model without investigating a little further.

The key is the “R” (Relatedness) in SCARF.

Relatedness is a feeling of being safe in the presence of others (trust vs distrust). We can flesh this out quite easily to say that good relationships at work are essential.

In addition, Todd Wagner & James K. Carter, PhD, cited in their great book “12: The Elements of Great Managing” the need of having a “best friend” at work. That is, good relationships.

Get the Relatedness element wrong, and you may struggle to see the results you are looking for. And many times the leader doesn’t know why.

Here’s why!

Let’s look at how a less than ideal relationship might affect the other aspects of SCARF. Remember, if it is not ideal, it can be seen as a threat. And people try to avoid threats.

Status

Is the relationship being used to create a win-win or a win-lose scenario? If it’s perceived as win-lose, then the status level of one party (Individual/Team/Division) is going to be diminished (i.e. threatened). If status is threatened, goodwill reduces. Teamwork fades and performance dissipates. Will the relationship break completely once one of the parties has achieved their personal goal? How will that affect the organisation?

Certainty

How would a good relationship build certainty? If one party sensed the relationship wasn’t strong, how would that affect certainty in a role, in a team, in an organisation? Often, when there is uncertainty, people begin to fill in the gaps in the story. And, again, because this is a threatening situation, people tend to retreat. It can then be a self fulfilling prophecy of an adequate performer becoming a poor performer, not because they don’t have the skills, they’re in protection mode!

Autonomy

I have seen and experienced this myself. Be on the right side of the person and life is good. Be on the wrong side and it can go horribly wrong. All of a sudden you feel like you’re being watched and yet you may not have any real idea of what you have done … because there is no significant relationship. So, with less autonomy, they begin to follow the rules. If they follow the rules they are safe. Less initiative is shown, less risk and this can be viewed as poor(er) performance.

Fairness

I hope it’s obvious what the lack of a good relationship will do to affect the fairness element of the SCARF model. And, more importantly the performance of the business.

What does this all mean?

Must every leader need to have a strong personal relationship with every member of their team?

From a logistical point of view, and when talking about large numbers, it’s likely not possible. But a leader can lead by example with their immediate team where it has more chance of flowing across the business.

Even leaders who do good things and with good intentions need to be aware e of the perception of their actions.

A humorous example is that of the late Colin Powell, as an image in his autobiography, A Soldier’s Way, shows. He often used the “six-gun” method when calling on reporters at the Pentagon. He’d done it for years and no-one told him. Then Saturday Night Live got a hold of it!

(On a More Serious) Case in Point

Two managers I know, different companies, make a point of walking through their business each morning to say hello, be available to talk with and be visible. It’s a quick walk and not intended to take a lot of time but the effort is made to engage with the staff and if an issue needs to be raised, they stop and listen.

One manager gets a great response. People look forward to the morning “chat with the boss.”

It’s a bit different with the other manager. His staff make a point of “hiding” when the morning walk begins. Some staff message others to say, “The boss is coming!” … it’s a warning!

Same activity, two very different outcomes.

It all hinges on the relationship.

Over to you. What have you seen that works well? Do you agree or disagree? Happy to have a conversation.

Note: Links to resources in this article do contain affiliate links. This means I may get a small payment if you use the link. The resources do not cost anymore to you.

Feedback and the SCARF Model

In my last post I described a feedback model that has been proven to be easy and effective.

It also fits in well to the SCARF Model as developed by David Rock.

SCARF Stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

If you are unfamiliar with the Model, it proposes that humans have two basic modes: Threat & Reward.

Anything that happens which threatens you, you will move to defend or get away from. We know it as the “flight, fight or freeze” model.

Anything that is seen as a reward we will move towards.

Using the feedback model I proposed (R-ASBINT) we can see that it fits in well with SCARF.

Firstly, if you have a good relationship with the person you are giving feedback to, they are more likely to accept the feedback or at least listen to it and reflect on it positively. They may decide it’s not true or effective so they will make their choice to act on the feedback or not.

However, this is better than the alternative where there is little to no positive relationship and the feedback is seen as a threat. The person may become defensive or simply not act on it in any way. It may also worsen the relationship, making further feedback even less effective.

Relationship = Relatedness/Status

The Relationship side of feedback, corresponds to the Relatedness factor in the SCARF model. A good relationship also builds the Status within the SCARF model. A person confident in their Status will act more openly and creatively, knowing they are well regarded and regard themselves well.

Behaviour = Certainty

Offering feedback also helps create greater Certainty. Again, this relies on a good relationship to get the best out of it. Providing clear feedback builds certainty in an individual’s world. Letting them know a missed deadline is not acceptable. Or arriving at a meeting late and/or unprepared. And, just as importantly, letting people know when a good job has been done, reinforcing the behaviour and attitudes that need to become the norm.

In our current crazy world, some things may be difficult to be clear on. So it is even more important to provide feedback where some certainly or clarity can be provided.

Next Time = Autonomy

Where the feedback model looks for the behavioural change in the “Next Time …” stage, the model suggests not to dictate what to do. We allow the individual to choose how they will close the gap or continue the good behaviour. We do this by simply stating, “Could you do that differently?”, “Could you fix that?”, or “That’s awesome what you did!”. This relates to Autonomy in the SCARF Model, which give the individual the choice on how they want to develop. Sure, if they need help, provide it. But people are more capable than we might think and if you are clear on your feedback and situation, they’ll have an idea of what to do.

Simple = Fairness

Fairness in the SCARF Model is where the feedback model is so simple and easy to do. It’s also quick, you don’t need a meeting in a closed office, you can do it on the fly. So it allows for greater equity in our dealings with our teams.

Look for opportunities to provide feedback to your team members, peers and managers as the opportunities arise. Don’t just focus on those you want to “Fix”!

Finally

Management and leadership practices don’t operate in a vacuum. Many of our behaviours, beliefs and attitudes flow into all parts of our practices. Being more conscious of them, at least initially, until they become habitual will go a long way to building the self image of your team to becoming high performers.

Try the feedback model for a month. See how you go.

I’d be keen to hear from you.

I’d start with focusing on positive feedback. Often, at least in my experience, when team members are feeling food about themselves, the last thing they want to do is let their manager down. And many times they know when they are cutting corners. You may find as you provide the positive, constructive feedback, the gaps you currently see may disappear automagically!