SCARF Model for Handling Change

Dr. David Rock developed the SCARF model to help explain what motivates people and why individuals may be more apt to tolerate uncertain or ambiguous situations. In a nutshell, people tend to move away from threats and toward rewards:

<The> central organizing principle of the brain is analogous to a concept that has appeared in the literature for a long time: the approach-avoid response. This principle represents the likelihood that when a person encounters a stimulus their brain will either tag the stimulus as ‘good’ and engage in the stimulus (approach), or their brain will tag the stimulus
as ‘bad’ and they will disengage from the stimulus (avoid). If a stimulus is associated with positive emotions or rewards, it will likely lead to an approach response; if it is associated with negative emotions or punishments, it will likely lead to an avoid response. The response is particularly strong when the stimulus is associated with survival.


The five domains of SCARF are:

  • Status: relative importance and seniority compared to others. Your sense of status goes up when you feel ‘better than’ another person; the perception of a potential or real reduction in status can generate a strong threat response.
  • Certainty: understanding what is expected of you and being able to predict the near future. Not knowing your boss’ expectations or if your job is secure can be debilitating.
  • Autonomy: the perception of exerting control over your environment; a sensation of having choices. When you sense a lack of control, the experience is of an inability to influence outcomes. People often leave corporate life because they desire greater autonomy.
  • Relatedness: deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group. Whether someone is friend, or foe. Relatedness is a driver of behavior in many types of teams, from sports teams to organizational silos: People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging.
  • Fairness: fair exchanges are intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors. Unfair exchanges generate a strong threat response. People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished.

This principle of approach-avoid is extremely important when we develop our change management and communication plans.

Have we reduced the perceived threats of the change on our employees?

  1. Status: Have we encouraged employees to help develop the training and development plan for their jobs in the future state?
  2. Certainty: Have we clearly defined roles and responsibilities in the future state? Have we shared the change message through multiple mechanisms? Have we shared the deployment plan and status reports so that employees understand the steps we are taking and how far along we are?
  3. Autonomy: Have we invited employees to participate in a community of practice to give us direct feedback on the change?
  4. Relatedness: Have we allowed time for cross-functional teams to get to know each other on a personal level?
  5. Fairness: Are our communications transparent and have we involved all impacted stakeholders in the design of the change?

Have we clearly articulated the rewards of making this particular change and at this time?

  1. Status: Have we communicated the valuable, transferable skills employees will be gaining as part of the change? Is our sponsor publicly recognizing and thanking our change agents and communities of practice?
  2. Certainty: Have we developed a comprehensive communication plan that reinforces the importance of the change through multiple mechanisms? Do we publish ongoing status reports showing progress against our goals?
  3. Autonomy: Have we empowered employees to exercise their creativity and make certain decisions without senior leadership consultation or intervention?
  4. Relatedness: Have we developed mentoring or coaching programs to engage our employees?
  5. Fairness: Has our facilitator set ground rules for how we will participate in the change and provide feedback to the change team? Have we set clear expectations for everyone during and after the change?

Take the time to understand what motivates (or de-motivates) people and anticipate whether your plan will encourage adoption of the change. The business value will be reaped when a greater percentage of your employees are willing to embrace change and influence their counterparts to join in as well. This will happen when your employees perceive the overall change as rewarding, not only to the company, but also to themselves.

About Michelle Smeby

Michelle Smeby is CEO of wHolistic Change, Inc. with more than 10 years of experience implementing enterprise solutions at Fortune 100 companies. Michelle specializes in helping corporations deliver transformational change.

This entry was posted in Creating Change Agents, Planning the Change Effort and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.