Most of us tend to think of ourselves as logical, rational people – and we hope that others think of us in the same light. However, it’s increasingly clear from both academic research and observations of the management of people that we tend to act more on emotion than logic. Consider the last time you got negative feedback from a peer. The course of action you immediately gravitated towards probably wasn’t one of expressing gratitude for their constructive criticism. Instead, you may have found yourself acting out of a place of defensiveness or justification.

Our emotions are deeply embedded in the “feeling” portion of our brains: aka the limbic system. We are social creatures by nature, and having an understanding of some of the basic principles of “neuroscience” can greatly assist in leading your people and creating a high-performance workplace.

One of the most useful models of these principles is the “SCARF” model (David Rock, 2008). SCARF is an acronym for Status-Certainty-Autonomy-Relatedness-Fairness. The model below illustrates this:

Threats to these five “social qualities” will generate stress (driven by hormones such as Cortisol, Adrenaline and Dopamine) and consequently cause us to move away from the item we perceive as a threat.

On the other hand, if one or more of the qualities is rewarded, we will be drawn toward it. The hormone Oxytocin (sometimes called the “love hormone”) is part of empathy, trust and relationship building. Hint: these things are important when creating a high performing workplace. So how can we keep ourselves as leaders and our people from encountering threats to these social qualities?


Like it or not, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others and assessing how situations affect our social status. When we perceive that we’re viewed as less favorable than others, the threat response is triggered. Many “standard” HR practices such as performance reviews, 360o feedback and ranking people can be counterproductive to development. I’ve been in many offices where I’ve seen a whiteboard ranking team members in terms of closed deals. While this may originally be seen as a form of motivation or healthy competition, it can threaten your people’s feeling of status.

If we perceive a situation will improve our status, we will feel favorably toward it. The next time you want a team member to take on a new project or initiative, make sure they recognize that it’s not only for the good of the company but for the good of their own personal development.


Humans crave certainty and we are wired to establish it. When we have certainty, we are more comfortable multitasking and taking on additional responsibility. When something unexpected happens, we are no longer able to do this. Uncertainty registers as something that must be dealt with before we can be comfortable (and multitask and take on responsibility).

One way to promote a culture of certainty is to emphasize transparency. Sharing plans and rationales for change can promote confidence and instill certainty within your organization.


When we feel reduced autonomy (like when we are being micromanaged) it can generate a threat response. An ideal environment is one of structured independence which balances certainty of boundaries with the need for autonomy. Co-creation of goals and objectives can help in creating that ideal environment.


We are wired to naturally view strangers and new people as potential threats, especially if we perceive the person as different from us. As we start to recognize former strangers as friends, Oxytocin is generated and trust and empathy are developed.

We are social beings so social interaction and inclusion are very important for maximum performance. Encourage your people to form groups around related interests. Host regular breakfasts or lunches as a way for your people to mingle and interact. Only after people feel related and included will a culture of collaboration and certainty blossom.


Like status, we perceive fairness in relative terms. We are actually more satisfied with a fair exchange of a minimal reward then we are with an unfair exchange of a substantial reward. Playing favorites is an example of lack of fairness that can generate a threat response (if you don’t believe me, watch the following video –

Transparency and open communication can help perceptions of fairness. Ensure your people feel equal and encouraged to contribute regardless of the title they have.

Applying the SCARF Model

A recent client experience may help clarify some of these concepts. I work with a leadership team at a company whose owner is experiencing some health issues. At a recent meeting, the team was experiencing some frustrations. It was clear they felt threatened in three different social qualities: certainty, relatedness, and autonomy.

It was evident that the team was feeling some uncertainty (in the future of the company and their own careers) due to the owner’s health situation. They are a very close-knit team that cares about each other, so relatedness probably factored in as well. It was a time where more autonomy was needed. They needed to get on the same page about their objectives and how to complete them while juggling this setback.

It was a simple solution once everything was laid out on the table. An open and honest discussion helped them better understand what was going on and they could move forward together as a team.


The Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS©) and its tools are very helpful in addressing the issues laid out in the SCARF model.

The Accountability Chart emphasizes accountability over titles or levels, thereby helping clarify status and establishing certainty and fairness. The Vision Traction Organizer©(V/TO) clearly lays out a more certain future and plans for the organization. Regular team meetings which are positioned as peer-to-peer regardless of the actual “levels” in the room help with relatedness and fairness. An emphasis on managers as coaches who do not micromanage helps address autonomy. Frequent, open and honest 2-way communication at all levels promotes fairness.

Understanding the principles of the SCARF model and using a business operating system that addresses these five social qualities will help you create a high-performance organization.