SCARF model for working effectively with others

Being effective in any kind of collaboration, be it with children, students, friends, associates, co-workers or even loved ones is a skill. The few people who can do this well can lead themselves and others well. Developing this essential leadership skill requires a deliberate focus on the dynamics at play in any social setting and here, I find the SCARF model very useful. Built by Dr David Rock in 2008, the SCARF model describes how we can work effectively with people by understanding their social styles which in turn influence how we respond to others. The model is based on three central observations:

  1. We treat social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards
  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response
  3. The threat response is more intense and more common and often needs to be carefully minimized in social interactions.

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Research suggests that these five domains activate the same reward circuitry that physical rewards (money etc) or physical threats (pain, etc) activate. 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.

Let me quickly explain to the model while giving examples of how we can apply them to relationships.

DomainHow Reward Response is activatedHow Threat Response is activated
Status is a sense of our personal worth; where we are in relation to other people.On providing positive feedback, public acknowledgement of contributionsOn criticism, providing unsolicited advise
Certainty is the sense of what the future holds for us.Setting clear boundaries, expectations and goals, having realistic timelines.Lack of transparency, dishonesty and unpredictability.
Autonomy is the sense of control over our lives.Providing choices, delegating, empowering.Micromanaging, being authoritative
Relatedness is the sense of safety that we feel with others.Sharing friendly gestures, socializing, and having mentoring programs.Fueling internal competition within groups or teams, working in functional/business/ relational silos
Fairness is the sense of what is impartial and just.Transparent decision making, open communication, candidness and following clear rules/policies.Unequal treatment/rules/ policies/guidelines; lack of communication

The model enables people to more easily remember, recognize, and potentially modify the core social domains that drive human behaviour.

Here is how you can apply this to parenting (I am trying too):

  1. Do not try to compare your child to other children trying to prove her to be better or inferior to them Tweens especially are very conscious of ‘status‘. They love to be appreciated for the good things they do and love it when their efforts are appreciated in a social group or even on your social media page. I try to reframe criticism as room for improvement but always try to add ideas or hacks to do the same.
  2. Share a clear understanding of the boundaries they cannot cross: for example, I tell my daughter to never go to the basement or outside the premises of our gated community on her own or with her friends. No interactions or divulging personal or family information with strangers. When you share advice with them, make sure to clarify the reasons why you suggest so. Let them have long-term goals and milestones to achieve them and review them regularly.
  3. Give them the freedom to think and act in a way that is natural and spontaneous. When they have autonomy, they can better express themselves and are more creative and original. These are really the first steps towards appreciating the value of freedom and independence. Once they have the task and goal, let them figure out how best they can reach them.
  4. One of parenting’s biggest achievements would be to be best friends with your children. If you are able to reach a level of confidence and trust with them where they can proudly refer to you as their best friend, you’re already a super successful parent.
  5. Always be fair when you treat your children – not just with respect to other children but also with respect to grownups. Keep your promises and be candid with them in all interactions. We always treated our daughter as an equal and never shushed her away when she participated in a conversation with older adults and peers.

My experience with this model has been great and I especially see it as effective when we employ all the domains together and not in isolation. However, you will also learn by experience that each person has a different level of each of these five needs and if you are sensitive you can notice them in your transactions. You can employ this model at my workplace with my team, at workshops and leadership events and it works. Once you get a hang of it, it comes naturally to you and becomes part of your skill set. Like all good things, it comes by practice and you can employ it in several domains of life – relationships, parents, friends work and parenting. Tell me what you think of this and share your experiences.

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