Created by Susanne Stock

#favouritemodel No. 32 - SCARF - Psychological Safety

We all know our physiological needs. We need to eat and drink enough every day, we need a certain indoor or outdoor temperature to avoid freezing or overheating, we need air to breathe, we need sleep to regenerate the body. But when it comes to our basic psychological needs, what about them?

Modern neuropsychological research brings us important insights into what a person needs to stay healthy not only physically but also psychologically. David Rock, co-founder of the Neuroleadership Institute, has developed the so-called SCARF model. In this model he describes 5 factors that influence our behavior. SCARF is an acronym consisting of the first letters of these individual dimensions: Status - Certainty - Autonomy - Relatedness - Fairness.

The model is based on the findings that human behavior is based on fundamental biochemical processes and that our brain strives to maximize rewards and minimize threats. When we experience a threatening interaction in a professional/social context, our brain releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. In doing so, it sets in motion the same stress mechanisms we experience when we are in physical pain or acutely threatened (for example, by the often-mentioned tiger standing in front of us). Conversely, in social situations that we perceive as pleasant, our body reacts by releasing dopamine, serotonin, endorphin or oxytocin, which makes us feel good and full of energy.

From an organizational perspective, this is an exciting finding, as it helps managers and teams to recognize the different basic needs of employees and to create a culture in which threats are minimized and rewards maximized. This increases the chance that employees will be able to draw on their positive resources and, together with the team, find ways to deal with stressful situations.

When leaders and teammates act according to the SCARF model and tailor their actions to meet the needs of each person, it leads to a trusting environment where employees can perform.


Status" is about the relative standing of the actors to each other and the influence that the personally perceived positioning has on their individual well-being and behavior. Status is noticeable in that employees feel they are recognized and important to their team and the company.

The need for status receives attention through various contextual conditions, e.g.:

  • I receive positive feedback from my superiors and colleagues about my work.
  • I hold a recognized position in the company where I am recognized as an expert/leader.
  • Other colleagues ask me for advice.
  • I am involved in important decisions and have access to certain management levels/decision makers.
  • External status symbols such as a company car, bonuses, gym memberships also have an influence. However, since these are extrinsic motivators, their influence on the reward system is less lasting than the influence of the preceding social / interactive influencing factors.

The need for status is threatened, for example, by the following conditions:

  • In my team, there is a negative error culture in which failures, mishaps and mistakes are punished without looking forward in a solution-oriented way. In such a case, it is likely that feedback discussions with my supervisor or colleagues, for example, are perceived as threatening and I do not tend to initiate them proactively.
  • In stressful situations, everyone is preoccupied with themselves. Stressors as well as personal emotions are not addressed. In such a case, I would rather try to keep my fears and frustrations to myself. Revealing my emotions could lead to a drop in my reputation/status with others if I show "weakness".

Leaders should be able to classify this behavior of employees and reflect on how they can change the framework in order to strengthen the need for status and thus also the resilience of their employees. Employees need the space and openness to talk about current stressful situations without devaluation, to realize that they are not alone in the situation and can support each other as a team. Regular, solution-oriented and positive feedback continuously increases the employees' self-esteem.


Behind Certainty lies the need to be able to predict next steps to some extent and thus to maintain a sense of control and security over one's life. Major changes often lead to this need becoming unbalanced.

The need for security is supported by:

  • Clear processes and agreements that the team adheres to.
  • I can trust that communication is honest and promises are kept (walk the talk).
  • Uncertainties are discussed and addressed in a timely manner.
  • I trust my team and management to handle difficult situations constructively.

Threats to the need for security include:

  • Unclear goals in the team. Everyone works according to their own (hidden) agenda.
  • When it comes to change processes, I am left in the dark for weeks, maybe even months. There is no process in the team to discuss or address these uncertainties.
  • I can't rely on the things that are communicated by management or colleagues.

Studies show that a continuous threat to our need for security can even have negative effects on our working memory and reduce our ability to concentrate. In the team, it is therefore important to create framework conditions in which continuous transparency about the goals in the project is established and mutual expectations are clarified. In change processes, it is helpful to repeatedly initiate review meetings that help employees see which steps/milestones have already been achieved and which subgoals still need to be reached. This makes the change manageable and creates a sense of control.


Autonomy is about my degree of freedom and the possibility of co-creation and self-determination. Like all needs, this one is highly individualized.

The following conditions are conducive to the need for autonomy in the work context:

  • I can freely decide on my work area.
  • I can freely choose my working methods according to my preferences. Do I want to work more in a home office, in an office or in a hybrid? Can I freely arrange my working hours? Can I choose work tools (software, hardware, tools, etc.) according to my preferences?
  • I can work according to my talents and skills.
  • I can express my perspective. My ideas influence the decisions that are made.

Threatening to the need for autonomy are, for example, the following conditions:

  • My working environment and the work processes are strictly regulated. Everything has to be implemented according to work instructions, there are no opportunities to contribute myself, my (improvement) ideas or personal routines.
  • My perspective is not sought or ignored.
  • Suggestions for improvement are not implemented.

To give employees a sense of autonomy, the first step is to fully delegate tasks to them. They should have room to act and be given responsibility for the specific way in which the task is implemented. Micro-management and constant intervention in work processes can be very demotivating for employees.
In change processes, leaders should ensure that team members can participate in shaping the change from the very beginning and thus make the change one of their own. If a team can help shape its own future, this has a very positive effect on the feeling of autonomy and self-efficacy. This strengthens the team feeling, the energy balance of the team and thus, in the long term, the resilient handling of any imponderables that may arise.


The need for relatedness describes the feeling of belonging to a group and feeling comfortable with colleagues. When trust evolves in a team, issues can be expressed more openly, and performance and solution orientation increase. A positive team atmosphere provides individual protection and at the same time drives team members to try to protect their group. The messenger substance oxytocin is released, strengthening the bond within the group. However, if a team member feels excluded, the same areas in the brain are activated that are activated when physical pain occurs. The feeling of loneliness arises.

The need for relatedness can be secured by:

  • The promotion of interpersonal contact. It is permitted and common practice to talk about challenges as well as about things that were fun and enjoyable in the project.
  • The team also exchanges ideas outside of official meetings, during (virtual) coffee breaks, in one-on-one conversations, or at team events that are organized together.
  • The team lives a culture of active listening. People let themselves be heard and make sure that all team members are given enough space to express themselves and that the share of speaking time in meetings is evenly distributed.

The need for relatedness is violated when:

  • There is no regular exchange within the team.
  • Not all perspectives are heard during discussion rounds, but only the same people always present their thoughts. The lack of moderation and involvement of the quieter team members causes them to lose contact with the team.
  • There is a team culture of talking about others rather than talking to others.
  • The leader is hardly (virtually) available. There are no regular one-to-one conversations with team members, so no real bond can develop between the manager and team members.

Leaders should promote a culture of togetherness in which projects are not worked on by each individual in a "quiet room," but in which there is transparency about where there are meaningful overlaps / opportunities for collaboration. Exchanges during coffee breaks or team events should be encouraged so that the group develops a sense of relatedness. At the same time, the leader should keep an eye on what the different connectedness needs are within the team. Again, there are differences and not everyone is comfortable revealing a lot of private information. It is important to value this diversity in the team and not to devalue it, so that each team member can open up as much or as little as they need.


This dimension is about how I feel I am treated fairly in comparison to others. People have sensitive antennas for fair or unfair behavior, observe their working environment closely and (unconsciously) make constant comparisons with themselves and their fellow human beings.

The need for fairness can be met by:

  • The team exchanges information about the various needs and establishes its own rules for cooperation based on these.
  • Information is handled transparently.
  • Unpopular tasks are distributed fairly within the team.
  • Overtime or special services are rewarded fairly.

The need for fairness is threatened by behaviors such as:

  • Decisions seem arbitrary or are not sufficiently justified.
  • The same team members are repeatedly called upon for exciting new projects.
  • A colleague repeatedly struggles to complete his or her tasks, requiring support from the team. What initially starts out as collegial assistance can, after a while, be perceived by colleagues as unfair, as they regularly must work longer and more.

To promote a fair team culture, it is important that the entire team is transparent with information. In this way, situations that are perceived as unfair can be addressed and resolved openly. If employees feel they are being treated unfairly and this situation continues to smolder for a long time, this can have a major effect on motivation and resilience in the team and have a negative impact on the other SCARF dimensions, especially relatedness and status.

The SCARF model offers many possibilities to reflect on your own needs in the first step and then to better understand the needs of your teammates. Why don't you introduce the SCARF model to your team and talk about how everyone feels about the SCARF dimensions? Then you can work together to find ways to reduce the threats of the SCARF dimensions for you on the team and maximize the rewards. Good luck with this!


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