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The SCARF Model - Applying the model to understand our reactions to the pandemic

Posted 22 September 2020
by Gordan Stokes

As we continue to adapt and to evolve our routines and work practices around the COVID-19 pandemic a useful tool to help us understand our responses is the SCARF Model.  The model, based on neuroscience which is the study of our nervous system and brain, focuses on what drives our behaviours and thinking functions. Our response to changes, particularly those forced on us, is driven by the Limbic part of our brain.  The Limbic system, or reptilian brain, is the reactionary part of our brain, and one of the oldest, where our fight or flight, pleasure/reward, and emotional responses originate. 

The Limbic system is a part of the brain that is not sophisticated or good at judging the severity of a threat or if it is a threat at all.  We rely on the Cerebral Cortex to manage the response with reasoning and good judgement.  However, we can all be subject to what is called the “Amygdala Hijack” which is an immediate, overwhelming, and out of proportion response to a stimulus.  Daniel Goleman coined the term in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence.

Throughout the pandemic, we are experiencing ongoing change and disruption. Our brain responds to change as a threat which can initiate an Amygdala Hijack.  We will discuss the Scarf Model and how we can apply it to understand our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The model will help us formulate a response that can be applied at an individual, team, and organisational level.  Also, the way we process the experience of the pandemic step by step.  Note, it is a tool we can continue to use beyond the present situation.

What is the SCARF model?

The SCARF model was developed by David Rock, 2008, and is primarily applied in a Change environment.  However, it is also useful in developing the best approach to collaboration, coaching, and training situations.  It represents the highest level of engagement and is highly relevant for leaders to be aware of and to apply in an everyday situation and not just those we are encountering now. 

While experienced in complex social/professional situations, our response to change is binary and under each segment of the SCARF model represents either a Threat or a Reward.  The threat response is likened to physical pain as both responses are in the same primitive part of the brain. 

  • Status – our relative importance to others.
  • Certainty – our ability to predict the future.
  • Autonomy – our sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness – how safe we feel with others.
  • Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.

Applying the SCARF Model during the pandemic

We can refer to the SCARF Model to consider our team’s response to the pandemic and how best to address the responses we identify as well as for any challenging interactions you may be experiencing with others.

Status - Sense of Personal Worth

Status can be threatened by giving advice or instructions, feedback, even by everyday conversations.  Status is about the person’s perception of personal worth in relation to others and is important from a team and individual perspective to be clear and reinforce a positive sense of status.  The conditions we are currently working in, due to the pandemic, impact how we can reinforce a positive sense of status.  A threat to status can be remedied by;

  • Line managers involving team members in decision making.
  • Providing constructive and regular feedback.
  • Providing opportunities to shine.
  • Reinforcing status through positive communication.

Certainty - Sense of what the future holds

The current pandemic situation is unprecedented, therefore, causing a great deal of uncertainty. We are limited by how much certainty can be conveyed, however, stating this and letting the team know that you do not have information is an important and very helpful thing to communicate.  With that in mind, these are steps that can be taken to deal with a lack of certainty;

  • Consider what can be controlled and encouraged.
  • Clarity and honesty in all communications is critical - any gaps may encourage rumour which can be damaging.
  • Be open, honest, and transparent.
  • Set agreed timeframes and dates for communication and follow through.
  • Establish and set clear expectations of what might happen and desired outcomes.

Autonomy - Sense of Control

Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over one’s environment - having choices, clear responsibilities, and decision-making rights.  It is important that everyone has clearly defined responsibilities, choices available to them and the ability to make decisions. Many people are experiencing a declining sense of autonomy during the pandemic due to limited choices and decisions that are being that are out of their control.  For example, home-schooling was a decision imposed upon many families. To minimise the autonomy ‘threat’ and gain a sense of control try the following:

  • Apply the Circle of Concern model to identify what is currently in your realm of control and let go of those things currently outside of your control.
  • Line managers continue to empower your team members, support them, and encourage independent action.
  • Continue to be clear in your communications and expectations for yourself and your team members.

Relatedness - Sense of Safety with Others

Relatedness, or a sense of safety with others, is a powerful driver for positive interactions with others.  Being connected to a group or team is a fundamental human need, in fact, lack of relatedness creates the same neural response as physical pain.  Increasing physical isolation can severely impact relatedness and connection within the team and organisation. Strategies to address this include;

  • Having regular 1:1 and team meetings.
  • Implement a buddy system within the team.
  • Celebrate and encourage diversity of thought.
  • Run virtual social events and ensure people participate within their “comfort zone”.

Fairness - Perception of fair exchanges between people

Unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response. Perceived improvement in fairness activates the same neural response as a monetary reward.  The pandemic will stymie the sometimes-subtle perception of fairness, and with “perception is reality” all misleading perceptions must be addressed. Line managers, in particular, need to ensure the following;

  • Establishing clear expectations in all situations.
  • Include the team in setting clear ground rules which are agreed by all team members.
  • Be aware of equity and fairness in all dealings and the perception created.

The SCARF model provides a useful lens with which to view how we are experiencing the current pandemic situation and how this is impacting the way in which we relate and interact with others. Consider which elements of SCARF are triggering threat responses in yourself and your team members and apply some of the above strategies to reduce the threat response, allowing for more harmonious interactions with others. We are all experiencing this challenging situation in different ways, therefore, by becoming familiar with the model, it can be a template for identifying team dynamics or interpersonal difficulties and how to remedy any issues.

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