Increasing engagement and motivation using the brain-based SCARF model

30 May

We know from the work of Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg and others that we are best motivated by satisfying higher level psychological needs such as mastery, autonomy, status and achievement.

Contemporary work by Edward Deci and others focuses on autonomy, relatedness and competence as primary motivators. Daniel Pink in his book Drive, The Surprising Truths About What Motivates Us, identifies the three big drivers of performance and success as autonomy, mastery and purpose.

There is no shortage of information about motivation and engagement. We know the key is increasing autonomy, mastery, relatedness, purpose, et al. What isn’t as clear, is exactly how to go about doing that.

David Rock’s SCARF model incorporates many of the psychological needs previously discussed, packages them into a nice model with a memorable acronym and presents some good neuroscience examples of what happens in the brain when these needs are met and also when they’re not. I decided to build on David’s work and use the SCARF as a framework for organizing tips and techniques for improving work interactions and ultimately increasing engagement and performance.

The SCARF model includes five domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Status is about one’s 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 and belonging. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.  Let’s take a look at how these play out in the workplace and in particular what we can do to improve the environment to meet these important psychological needs.

Threat Versus Reward

As we talk about these five areas, we’ll discuss both the threat response and the reward response. The threat response is when we feel our status or autonomy is in danger, or when we feel there is no certainty or fairness. The reward response is when the environment or situation makes us feel better – we feel ‘better than’, free to choose, related to others, etc. What happens in the brain with these responses is very different.

The threat response engages the amygdala, the part of the brain that kicks off the fight or flight mechanism. Because the majority of the brain’s resources are focused on protection, there isn’t a lot left over for other executive level activities. The reward response, on the other hand, triggers positive emotions and increased dopamine levels. Studies suggest that when people are experiencing positive emotions, their collaboration and problem solving abilities are heightened, they are more innovative and creative, and generally perform better overall.


Status is about our perception of importance as it relates to other people. When we feel ‘better than’ another person, our sense of status goes up. When this happens, the brain’s primary reward circuitry is activated, which increases dopamine levels and we feel better. One study showed that an increase in status was similar in strength to a financial windfall (Izuma et al, 2008).

The opposite is also true. The perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong negative response. Eisenberger and colleagues showed that a reduction in status resulting from being left out of an activity lit up the same regions of the brain as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003).

It can be surprisingly easy to accidentally threaten someone’s sense of status. Something as simple as giving advice or instruction, suggesting improvements or accidentally leaving someone out of a group conversation can all activate the status threat response.

Think about the simple, seemingly innocuous question ‘Can I offer you some feedback?’. If you’re like most people, this question causes an internal panic similar to what you’d have if a stranger were following you at night. I work in this field and make my living talking about and giving feedback. And yet, when I hear that question, I can literally feel my amygdala perk up. If the response is that bad with the potential of a single bit of feedback, imagine what happens in the brain when we anticipate or participate in a performance review!

Ways to increase the status reward response

  1. Keep people ‘in the know.’The sense of being left out triggers the status threat. Therefore, be diligent about keeping people in the loop.
  2. Give positive feedback, especially public acknowledgement. We know that fear of feedback causes the threat response, so give regular positive feedback to make people more comfortable with feedback and reduce the fear response.
  3. Provide opportunities to learn and improve.People feel a status increase when they learn and improve, especially when attention is paid to the improvement. The reward circuitry from a sense of being ‘better than’ is activated even when the person one is ‘better than’ is oneself in the past.
  4. Encourage credential building.Encourage participation in professional organizations and the pursuit of advanced degrees and certifications.
  5. Acknowledge specialized expertise and knowledge. Being recognized as a specialist or expert on a given topic or area is a great way to increase the status response.
  6. Simulate promotion.Expand the way you think about job titles, career ladders and such to accommodate more movement. Give people the sense of moving up, even when you’re not able to actually promote them into a new job.
  7. Provide opportunities for people to teach and mentor others.Positioned correctly, the opportunity to teach and mentor others can provide a significant status reward response.
  8. Encourage participation in external activities.Encourage activities outside work that help build a person’s confidence and stature. For example, involvement in sports, coaching a youth sports team, playing music, teaching a class. Not everything has to come from work.


The brain uses past experiences and pattern-recognition to operate efficiently. It likes to be able to predict what’s going to happen next. Without prediction, the brain has to call on dramatically more resources, especially those involving the more energy-intensive prefrontal cortex.

Uncertainty generates an ‘error’ response in the frontal cortex. When this happens, all the attention and resources are focused on the error. It’s like having a flashing printer icon on your desktop when paper is jammed – the flashing cannot be ignored, and until it is resolved it is difficult to focus on other things. The same thing happens in your brain when you’re worried about the security of your job or what your boss is expecting of you.

Certainty creates a sense of reward, with examples everywhere in daily life: music that has simple repeating patterns is rewarding because of the ability to predict the flow of information. Meeting expectations generates an increase in dopamine levels in the brain. Going back to a well-known place feels good because the mental maps of the environment can be easily recalled.

Any kind of significant change generates uncertainty. Since change is the norm in the workplace today, it’s important to look for ways to mitigate the psychological threat of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Creating business plans, strategies and processes are one of the ways we do this. Even though it is unlikely things ever go as planned, just having the plan makes people feel better because it increases the sense of certainty.

Ways to increase the certainty reward response

  1. Make job/role expectations explicit and clear.Confusion about what a person is expected to do often causes undue stress and tension. Role clarity, in particular, clarity around the tasks and outputs of a job can go a long way to increase certainty.
  2. Share organizational strategies, objectives and plans.When we keep people in the dark about what’s going on at higher levels we trigger the certainty threat. Sharing organizational plans and strategies helps to minimize the threat.
  3. Align work with organizational goals and strategies.Further to item #2, map work of the group and where possible, work of each individual, to higher level business objectives. This impacts both Certainty and Relatedness.
  4. Communicate expectations for meetings and discussions.In meetings (and in discussions as well), be clear about the purpose of the meeting, how long it will run and roles and responsibilities.
  5. Break complex projects down into small steps.Lengthy and complex projects can often cause stress and tension because it’s difficult to feel a sense of control and movement forward. Breaking work down into smaller chunks can help increase a sense of certainty.
  6. Engage in “what if” exercises.‘What if’ exercises, where you work through what to do in different situations and scenarios, help people feel like they’re prepared no matter what happens.
  7. Keep people ‘in the know.’Keeping people up to date is important, especially during uncertain times. Communicate, even if the communication is that there is nothing new to report.


Autonomy is about the perception of control over one’s environment. The more we feel we have choices and are able to ‘call the shots’, the better we feel. Studies have shown that when confronted with stressful situations, those who feel like they have some control or influence over the outcome, fair much better than those who don’t. This is proven out in everything from cancer to dealing with difficult work situations.

One of the primary causes of the autonomy threat in the workplace is micro managing. Often managers either provide no information on what is expected (increasing the certainty threat) or too much, seeking to control every detail of how work is done, thereby increasing the autonomy threat. The best strategy is clarity around what is expected with flexibility and autonomy on how results are delivered.

Working in teams, by its nature, usually means autonomy is reduced. That said, how we structure teams, project and work can help increase (or conversely decrease) autonomy within team settings. Also, we can strategically pair activities and use increases in other areas (relatedness and certainty for example) to help balance things out.

Ways to increase the autonomy reward response

  1. Provide clear expectations with flexibility on how work is done. Tell people what you expect from them, outline the tasks, activities and deliverables of the job, then give them the freedom to do the work however they see fit.
  2. Allow people control over their work area.Allowing people to set up and manage their work area is a simple, yet powerful way to increase the autonomy reward response.
  3. Allow people to manage the hours they work. One of the most powerful ways to increase a sense of autonomy and build trust is to allow people to manage the hours they work.
  4. Frame goals and timelines as information rather than dictates.Frame goals and timelines as information to help ensure a person’s success, rather than as dictates or ways to hold people accountable
  5. Give people control over their training choices.Rather than a one-size-fits-all training program, give people a training budget and guidelines on expectations and let them choose their own courses and vehicles.
  6. Measure results not activities.When you assess and hold people accountable for results, rather than activities, you increase the autonomy reward.
  7. Engage in smart work design.Set up teams and projects in a way that encourages collaboration, but also allows people to maintain a sense of autonomy.


Relatedness is just what it sounds like. It’s the perception of being related or connected to other people, groups and initiatives. It’s about our sense of belonging, our sense of being accepted for who we are, our need to be around people who are ‘like us’ and share our values and dreams. Relatedness is also about being a part of something bigger, about shared purpose and vision.

The relatedness threat kicks off immediately when we meet someone for the first time. The brain decides whether the person in front of you is a friend or foe within seconds and depending on which one it chooses, different circuits are activated. Dealing with a potential foe triggers the fight or flight amygdala and takes a lot more brain power than dealing with a friend. And as we discussed in the Status section, staying in that heightened flight or fight state is extremely taxing and results in poor health and poor decision making.

The relatedness reward, on the other hand, can have a significant impact on motivation and engagement. When members of a group feel connected to each other and share a sense of meaning and purpose, stress and tension are reduced and productivity increases Relatedness can also positively impact both physical and mental health, both for the individual and for the group as a whole.

Ways to increase the relatedness reward response

  1. Buddy Up.Set up buddy systems, mentoring and/or coaching groups. Strategically pair or group people together into small groups with specific goals but flexibility on how they achieve those goals.
  2. Show people how their work aligns with organizational goals and strategies. Align work of the individual with larger organizational strategies and objectives. Enable people to “see” where they fit in. Notice that this item comes into play in Status and Certainty as well.
  3. Encourage cross-organizational communication and relationship-building.Encourage people to reach across the aisle and continually seek out ways to better connect with and work with other organizations and teams.
  4. Encourage cross-pollination and sharing of knowledge. Encourage people to collect and share knowledge and stories, not only across internal boundaries, but across external ones as well.
  5. Make connections and relationships visible.Help people see relationships and interconnections between people, tasks, technologies, external variables and organizational goals and objectives.
  6. Make values and purpose explicit and part of the culture.Help facilitate the identification and discussion of values and purpose.


Fairness is about the perceived fairness of exchanges between people. Things that trigger or effect the fairness response include consistency, congruency, and transparency. Like the other needs, it can have both negative and positive responses. A lack of transparency can trigger a fairness threat, where a feeling of fairness can trigger a reward threat.

People may perceive a threat of fairness when they perceive there are different standards for different people or inconsistent repercussions for non adherence. Similarly, there may be a threat of fairness when managers aren’t being forthcoming about what’s going on or when they continually put people in a no win situation. We often get mixed messages or have competing objectives. For example, we’re told to focus on employee retention, yet decrease capital budgets or cut headcount, but accomplish the same amount of work.

A fairness threat often is the result of saying one thing and doing another. For example, a company may claim it operates with a particular set of values or principles, but day-to-day behaviors suggest that these are just words, not actually part of the culture.

Ways to increase the fairness reward

  1. Increase transparency. Being open and honest about what’s going on behind the scenes goes a long way to built trust and increase the fairness reward.
  2. Increase communication and involvement about business issues.The more people know about the how and why of the business, the less likely they are to perceive a fairness threat.
  3. Establish clear expectations about everything.Make work expectations, meeting expectations, organizational goals and objectives and project plans explicit and clear.
  4. Implement self-directed teams.Strategically staff teams and and let them make  decisions about how work is done.
  5. Encourage grass-roots decision making.Push decision making down and encourage feedback from everyone.
  6. Be consistent.It’s especially important to be consistent in your treatment of people. Inconsistent treatment often triggers the fairness threat response.
  7. Identify gray areas.The balance of standards and flexibility is a delicate one. Be clear about which items are hard and fast rules with repercussions, and which are simply guidelines.

David Rock, SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *