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News & Press: Blog

SCARF model: What can we learn?

09 August 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Abi Walker
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Communicators as a rule try to avoid acronyms, but occasionally an acronym comes along which has real value. SCARF could be one of those, as a mnemonic for guiding the way we communicate to foster stronger collaboration and higher performance levels. 

David Rock’s SCARF model builds on the basic truth that the human brain is there to keep us safe. Our instinctive responses are designed to help us to move away from threat and towards reward.

How threat obstructs our thinking

Anyone who has ever felt stressed and threatened will recognise that this threat response gets in the way of our ability to think straight, and access our creativity. When we are really stressed and under pressure, it can feel as if we aren’t able to think at all. The SCARF model describes the specific interpersonal threats and rewards that have the most power to affect us. Rock highlights that brains interpret social hurt just the same as physical hurt, which is why how we interact with team members and stakeholders can have such a deep effect on all organisational initiatives. 

The acronym SCARF points us towards the five things that profoundly direct our behaviour as if they were connected to our survival. Exploring these from the perspective of an Agile approach may reveal some of the more subtle reasons why business agility works so well.


 A threat to someone’s status can easily cause an argument. People crave recognition and don’t wish to be thought less able than their peers. Failing to acknowledge someone’s skill and effectiveness can generate a threat response and cause damaging conflict. This has an impact on how feedback should be delivered, and David Rock suggests that empowering people to give feedback on their own performance is one solution. 


 Our brains like to predict what is going to happen next, as part of keeping us safe. When change occurs and the future is uncertain, threat responses are triggered which draw energy away from our ability to be productive. Uncertainty increases the further ahead we try and plan or predict, and so the Agile approach of breaking initiatives down into small steps increases certainty and improves predictability. 

An Agile approach encourages increased communication to help people feel well informed and increase their sense of certainty around what the future may bring. Even where the possible outcomes of a situation are unknown, making people aware of when their questions may be answered will increase their sense of certainty, reducing stress and improving their performance.


 Agile principles suggest that quality outcomes are best achieved by giving people and teams the autonomy to be responsive and make the decisions that they are appropriately qualified to make. People generally hate to be micromanaged and yearn for the control that will allow them to influence outcomes. An Agile approach where people are able to organise their own workflow and make point-of-need decisions, without always needing approval from a more senior level of the hierarchy, begins to build autonomy into an organisation’s processes. This distributed authority with more autonomy for decision making is part of the Agile Culture DNA described by the Consortium’s Agile Culture and Leadership working group.


 As social animals, humans like to be part of the in-group. This has the potential to encourage the creation of organisational silos. People feel more comfortable and communicate more effectively with those with whom they feel a connection. They prefer to work with people they know and trust. When organisations are able to create a culture of connectedness, where people feel safe to share and collaborate, then engagement and performance improves. Keeping Agile teams small and connected, helps to build a sense of relatedness and shared team responsibility. 


People are very quick to pick up an implication of unfairness and feel threatened by it. Working in a transparent way helps to avoid hypothetical opinions about fairness, as everyone has access to the reality of a situation. Sometimes simply sharing the reasons for a decision can avoid a political and damaging working environment – protecting motivation and performance levels.

Looking at the Consortium’s Nine Principles of Agile Leadership through the lens of David Rock’s SCARF model is a useful way to stay focused on those things that make a real difference to human behaviour.

Original article written and published by Communications Specialist, Pam Ashby on 15 June 2018. Updated by our Head of Content, Abi Walker on 09 August 2019.

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