The SCARF Model of Engagement

Employee engagement is paramount to business success. But it has always presented two baffling problems:

  1. You cannot demand it from your employees. If only you could! Then you could add it to job descriptions and raise it in annual reviews. But, you can’t. In fact, any attempt to force engagement will often have the opposite effect and instead breed resentment. No, employees have to give it to you of their own volition.
  2. Engagement is wreathed in mystery. Why one employee is disengaged whilst another seemingly near-identical employee is engaged can be incredibly hard to pin down. It’s like being trapped in an escape room without clues.

This is where David Rock and The SCARF Model can help. 

David Rock & The SCARF Model

Dr Rock is a neuroscientist lucky enough to have the perfect name for an Elvis tribute band if he ever fancies a change of scene. He helps people and businesses apply neuroscientific research to the workplace. To this end, he co-founded the Neuroleadership Institute and lectures at universities like Oxford.

His SCARF Model helps make sense of engagement. 

It provides insights from the world of neuroscience to help you understand the conditions needed to engage employees. It will help you unwrap the mystery surrounding engagement so you can more clearly perceive what’s actually needed to engage your workforce, and in turn, impact your business.

The Foundational Thread of The SCARF Model

There is a driving principle behind the SCARF model which knits the whole framework together. 

It’s the idea that the human brain has been organised to minimise threat and maximise reward.

  • Threat: Threat is a shorthand way of describing things that make you feel a wide range of negative emotions. It includes everything from fear and sadness to anxiety and depression. 
  • Reward: Reward is the flipside of threat. It is a shorthand way of describing things that make you feel good emotions like happiness, through to creativity, curiosity, hope and love.

Put even simpler still, threats are the things you want to run away from and rewards are the things you want to run towards. 

This idea is intuitive and easy to understand, but the ramifications are huge.

It means that throughout your life, you will have consistently made decisions that minimise any danger to you and maximise any good. 

Threat State vs Reward State

Millions of years of evolution have trained our brains to behave very differently when responding to a threat vs responding to a reward. 

Imagine for a moment that you are an early human 200,000 years ago living on a desert plain. Your brain would respond very differently to the threat of being chased by a tiger compared with the potential reward of fruit high in a tree. In the first situation, all you need to do is run or climb. In the second some creativity and intelligent thinking might be needed.

Here are some of the biggest differences between the threat state and the reward state:

Responding to Threats

  • Blood is redirected from the brain to the muscles
  • Less creativity
  • Fewer insights
  • Fewer ideas for new things to do
  • Focus on the here and now

Responding to Rewards

  • Increased blood flow to the brain 
  • More creativity
  • Problem solving and insights
  • Fresh ideas for things to do
  • An ability to focus on bigger things

What Are Threats and Rewards?

Not all threats are stripey cats with a penchant for frosted corn flakes. 

Likewise, not all rewards are as simple as a good meal or a bigger pay packet. 

Instead, they fall into five different categories. The first initial of each category makes up the S, C, A, R and F of the SCARF model. 

  • Status: How you see yourself and how others see you.
  • Certainty: How confident you can be of the future.
  • Autonomy: How much control you have over your life.
  • Relatedness: How connected you feel to others.
  • Fairness: How reasonable you feel decisions involving you have been. 

These five different areas can be arranged into axes with a sliding scale that looks like this:

Neutral Engagement

The SCARF Model Neutral


Imagine if each person had their own SCARF slider to represent how they felt. Each of the letters represents a different type of threat or reward. If all the sliders were on the left-hand side that would mean that the person was in the threat state. That would make for an anxious, sluggish and possibly even depressed person. It would look like this:


The SCARF Model Disengaged

But move all the sliders to the right, to the reward state and then that person would be more energised, happier, curious and creative. It would look like this:


How does the SCARF model relate to engagement?

Well, engagement is like a fussy plant that won’t grow unless the soil PH, sunlight and water levels are just right. When they are it grows quickly into a strong and healthy plant. 

But, if you stop watering your plant, or uproot and put it in the wrong soil, it will wither and die. 

This means that all it takes for an engaged employee to become disengaged is for one of the sliders to drop back towards the left-hand side. 

Imagine an engaged employee finds out that their team is at risk of redundancies. Suddenly their sense of certainty about the future would drop:

Imagine they find out that their job is one of three at risk of redundancy, their sense of certainty might fall through the floor and look like this:

You can understand that an employee like this, whose sense of certainty is out of kilter, will no longer be engaged. Their mind will be on other things and they’ll be worrying about what’s in store for them. 

Even if they find out their job remains safe, it can still take time for an employee to inch their way back to engagement.

The same applies to all aspects of the SCARF model. If you don’t connect with your colleagues, or you feel like you were passed over for a promotion unfairly, this will impact your engagement. The same is true if you feel like people don’t respect you, or if you have no autonomy in your role. Any one of these can be a barrier between your employees and engagement.

How Can You Keep All Areas of SCARF Positive?

If the five SCARF elements are the foundation for engagement, then that means you need your employees’ SCARF sliders to be as right-leaning as possible. This makes the question ‘how do you do that?’ very important.

The frustrating truth is that there is no silver bullet solution. 

Life is beyond the control of even the most carefully managed corporate processes. Nobody knows what the future has in store, and nobody has complete control over their own life or over other people’s lives. 

This all means that you can’t expect your employees to be engaged 100% of the time. That’s just not how life works. 

But, the encouragement the SCARF model offers you, is that your employees don’t want the world. 

The workplace is not brimming with millennial divas, despite what Buzzfeed is telling you. 

Employees want to be respected and treated fairly, to have a degree of certainty about the future and to have good relationships with their colleagues. 

If you offer this, then you can be confident you’re doing everything you can to build a strong foundation for employee engagement. 

But once you have that foundation in place, what can you do to keep nudging the sliders further to the right? How can you go that one step further and engage your employees? 

Epic Meaning

Epic Meaning is about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s about having lofty goals to make the world a better place.

Let’s look at how epic meaning can impact the SCARF model, one thread at a time:

  • Status: Nothing is better for your perception of yourself, or for other peoples’ perception of you than doing something meaningful. 
  • Certainty: By solving problems you make the world a more certain place. This helps remove some of that risk that makes life scary.
  • Autonomy: Making the world a better place is the ultimate expression of autonomy. You are making choices and the choices you make are solving problems.
  • Relatedness: No meaningful change can be made by one person alone. Teams who are working together to achieve the same goals are more tight-knit than any other.
  • Fairness: Making the world a better place means making it a fairer place as well.

This may sound like high-mindedness, but the figures back it up. Studies consistently demonstrate that businesses with a vision for a better world, (or a mission) achieve more than businesses that exist to make money and beat the competition.  

The Final Word

The SCARF Model helps you see engagement for what it really is. You can see past the confusion and perceive the true fabric of engagement. 

And it’s very, very simple. 

After all, who doesn’t want to be respected and treated fairly, to have a degree of certainty about the future and to have good relationships with colleagues? 

And, everyone wants to have an impact on the world. To leave it a better place than when they came into it. To have a purpose.

If you want to learn how you can unlock the power of purpose to engage your workforce, then our guide: The Secret to Business Impact is essential reading. It’s packed with advice from Growth Engineering’s 16 years of experience in engaging learners. 

You can grab your copy here!


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