How to use the SCARF model to lead and communicate with people especially in a crisis

How to use the SCARF model to lead and communicate with people especially in a crisis

David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership and founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, developed a model called “SCARF” to help people understand their thoughts and emotions in order to stay in a higher place of consciousness and function.  This model helps to summarize five factors that move a human towards a threat or towards reward (security). David Rock talks about it within the framework of social experience, how humans interact with the world and people. The model stems out of Neuroscience and supports what is actually happening in our brain. To put it very simply, when we are in a reward (security) state we tend to operate more from our Frontal Lobe verses when a human is feeling threatened, the brain shifts to the Limbic System where the Amygdala (fight, flight, freeze) takes over.  In times of high alert and stress, people more naturally drift to threat and uncertainty. When we as humans are in this mode we tend to be more emotional and have a wide array of feelings, often rooted in a type of fear.  

Leaders can use the SCARF model to help them communicate in a way that helps people feel more secure and ensures what they say does not activate threat (fear and mistrust). The SCARF model has five domains: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.  

What follows are tips to address each of the five domains.  As you communicate with an awareness of the SCARF model it should help to keep people in their frontal lobe where they are more high performing and confident versus their limbic system where emotions can hijack their ability to make decisions and operate well.

  • STATUS: Our importance to others and feeling like we matter. When communicating, let people/your team know they are important and matter.  Especially in stressful times, check-in with them more frequently (few times a week) then you would when stress is low (weekly). When people feel you have more power and they begin to sense they are insignificant or more powerless, it can activate a status threat. People are more calm and assured when they feel you are in this together and they know their voice is being heard.
  • CERTAINTY: Our ability to understand expectations and calculate the future. When life is disrupted, anything you can make certain is great. It can be tempting to lead with a “week to week” approach as there are many unknowns for the leader as well. Obviously some things have to be day-to-day, but what you can layout is important. Leaders have the opportunity to take what they see from the helicopter and also what is happening in the trenches, to share a vision for the situation and plan for action. What can you make consistent and known even in the midst of the unknown? For example: “We will work from home for the next two weeks. We will have a 30 min check-in call weekdays at 8 AM.” People want to understand what they can so they can make their plans. The mind craves certainty especially in the midst of great uncertainty. What are we going to do? When will ‘xyz’ happen? If that happens, how are we planning to respond? When leaders respond with equal uncertainty, people tend to feel more anxious and search for something to cling on to for stability. Provide as much stability as you can so they are not distracted creating it for themselves. When people have a sense of certainty they are able to be calmer, focused and forward-moving. When they lack even a nugget of clarity and a plan the human mind wanders, expending extra energy to ensure they will have stability. Create certainty and stability.
  • AUTONOMY: Our sense of control, freedom and personal power. Certainty frees me up to make my choices.  For example, if the plan is to work from home for two weeks and school is out for two weeks, a person can get started making a schedule for work time and family time. When things are in flux, humans can feel a loss of personal autonomy as someone else seems to be driving the car and they have to wait until they get certain information so they can then plan, make decisions and navigate.  People have a natural independence and desire to be able to design and determine how they want to go about things. Help them to know what choices they have. Trust them and empower them with the freedom to set things up in a way that works for them. It is important to set expectations and deliverables with designed accountability (what needs to be done, by when, and how do we know) but then helps them to know what decisions they have. Some people appreciate co-designing new situations, however, most people want to feel like they have some say and control in how they go about things.
  • RELATEDNESS: Our safety and connection with others, friend or foe. Help people to feel they belong, we are in this together, we will get through it together, and they are part of a team. When people feel excluded, it can activate a threat that I am not like everyone else. We want to communicate in a way that, like status, elevates each person to feel included and part of the team. It is important to help design connection points like AM huddles, PM check-in calls, the use of platforms like “Google teams” or “Slack” or tools to stay connected and in sync.
  • FAIRNESS: Our desire for a reasonable exchange between people.   People are quick to feel inequity and subconsciously think about themselves (did I get some, was I missed, am I included, etc.).  If people can plan (certainty) and know what they can do (autonomy) their fairness is less triggered. When they feel unjustly “bound” or sense a lack of ability to make decisions or have freedom, fairness can get activated.  As a result, a victim can easily show up, feeling powerless because they did not have power or information to act. When you communicate you want to consider what is “fair” for people at different levels and situations. You want to try and embody their perspective in order to best understand how solutions can be respectful of all versus biased and favoring some. The higher the stress environment and lack of certainty, fairness can become on high alert.  People naturally seek to protect and ensure things are fair while everything seems rocky. Communicate plans so individuals you lead know they are included, your plan and solution have them in mind and they will be safe and taken care of.

All of these things are about relating and connecting with people in a way that offers respect, understanding, and regard. It shows an understanding of the equality of human beings and sensitivity to our emotional nature that can be vulnerable to threat or encouraged with safety (reward).  When you are mindful of these five areas as you communicate, it helps for people to hear and listen to your message without getting distracted with internal emotional thought.  As a result, they will feel a greater level of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Your words and approach matter and using these five areas to check your message can help provide stronger and more powerful communication.



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