Are you ready to wear a SCARF??

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

-Maya Angelou

Won’t it be amazing if all of us sitting here will be remembered not by the way we look or what we do, or through our kids or whom we married to or what car we drive…. but by the way we make people feel?

Is this not what counts in this chaotic life of ours?

Is this not the missing link in reconnecting with others?

I would like to share with you a model which David Rock, a guru in the field of Neuroscience, has developed and described in his book, Your Brain at Work.

“SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others”

The SCARF model involves five domains of human social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward.

Some further comments on each of the five dimensions of the SCARF model:


Status is “about relative importance, ‘pecking order’ and seniority,” Rock writes in “SCARF…”  He cites the work of epidemiologist Michael Marmot, whose research suggests that status is “the most significant determinant of human longevity and health, even when controlling for education and income.”

Two key aspects of our brain’s perception of status are: 1) how easily a threat response can be triggered by such conventional workplace practices as performance reviews and “feedback” conversations, and 2) the fact that threat and reward responses related to changes in status can be triggered “even when the stakes are meaningless,” as Rock writes in strategy+business.  These dynamics imply not only that extreme care must be taken to conduct reviews and provide feedback in ways designed to boost, rather than threaten, the recipient’s status, but also that attention must be paid to all the little, everyday ways in which interpersonal status can be built up and torn down.


The importance of certainty can be seen as a result of the brain’s effort to conserve energy, which derives from the limited capacity of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function.  As I wrote last November, “we resist mental effort around decision-making and impulse control because we’re preserving resources in case we need them more urgently in the next moment,” and the same dynamic contributes to our resistance to uncertainty.  When we’re acting with sufficient certainty, our brain senses patterns, successfully predicts next steps, and operates much more efficiently.  But when we lack certainty and can’t predict what will happen next, “the brain must use dramatically more resources, involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex, to process moment-to-moment experience,” as Rock writes in “SCARF…”


Our perception of our ability to exert control over our environment has a substantial effect on our response to stress factors in our life.  When we feel more autonomous, we’re much more resistant to stress–and when we feel less autonomous, we can perceive the same set of circumstances as much more stressful.

Two aspects of autonomy worth nothing are: 1) autonomy and certainty are intertwined–more autonomy yields a greater sense of certainty about the future; and 2) similar to status, “even a subtle perception of autonomy can help,” Rock writes in “SCARF…” suggesting that even where autonomy is substantially limited by organizational constraints, meaningful perceptions of autonomy can be generated by small gestures.


“[I]n the brain,” Rock writes in strategy+business, “the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group… When [a] new person is perceived as different, the information travels along neural pathways that are associated with uncomfortable feelings (different from the neural pathways triggered by people who are perceived as similar to oneself.. Once people begin to make a stronger social connection, their brains begin to secrete a hormone called oxytocin in one another’s presence.  This chemical, which has been linked with affection, maternal behavior, sexual arousal and generosity, disarms the threat response and further activates the neural networks that permit us to perceive someone as “just like us.”

So in an interpersonal setting it’s important to interact in ways that will surface points of similarity, strengthen social connections and increase a sense of relatedness.  From a neuroscientific perspective, this process generates oxytocin, allows our brains to classify the other person as “friend” rather than “foe,” and contributes to feelings of trust and empathy.


“The perception that an event has been unfair,” Rock writes in strategy+business, “generates a strong response in the [brain], stirring hostility and undermining trust… In organizations, the perception of unfairness creates an environment in which trust and collaboration cannot flourish.”  Rock notes in his “SCARF…” paper that “unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response [that] sometimes includes activation of the insular, a part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust… People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished.”

And like status, perceptions of fairness are relative. Like all magnificent things, it’s very simple. I’ve seen this model working its charm in numerous businesses, with numerous business owners!

Connect to others consciously and purposefully, and be remembered by the way you made them feel

Ed Batista’s article “Executive Coaching & Change Management” | David Rock – “Your Brain at Work”