SCARF – a new model of human motivation

October 14, 2011 Simon Leadership Development

It is a testament to the work of Abraham Maslow that his model of human motivation has endured for the best part of 70 years.  While leaders around the world have learnt about Maslow’s Hierarchy at business school throughout the modern age, few would have found it particularly useful in helping to motivate their staff. It is a theory that is built on sound research, is easy to teach and easy to understand. But how can you use it at work to motivate your people? Exactly, it is one of those theories that is interesting but not particularly useful.

Having had the pleasure recently to work with Dr David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute, I am convinced that his new model of human motivation – SCARF – is not only interesting but also extremely useful to leaders looking to learn how to improve employee motivation and engagement. Its foundation lies in neuroscience, the study of which has been accelerated in recent years by advances in technology such as the widespread use of MRI scans. And in terms of practical application it also makes a great deal of sense, intuitively.

SCARF is an acronym for:


Dr Rock’s research shows these five factors as the constants in human motivation. When organizations and leaders get these factors right, they can lead to a state of high motivation. But when they get them wrong, they can be the root cause of demotivation.  For each of the five factors organizations and leaders can create a ‘reward state’ that enhances motivation, often dramatically, whereas they can also create a ‘threat state’ that can have an even greater impact in demotivating employees.

Status – This relates to people’s position in relation to others such as their peers, their colleagues, their manager, their friends and associates. It can be affected by public recognition, public criticism, job title, salary and softer factors like having an office versus having a cube, being invited to key meetings and so on.

Certainty – The more certainty people have the more the threat caused by uncertainty reduces. This is why managing change has been one of the most challenging skills that leaders have had to learn in the modern workplace. Change creates uncertainty and therefore, is perceived as a threat which in turn can lead to demotivation and a lack of productivity. It follows that the more certainty a leader can create for staff, the greater the reduction in people’s threat levels that is caused by perceived uncertainty.

Autonomy – People generally find the freedom to make their own choices as motivational.  The less control people have over their own destiny, the higher their level of demotivation. Even giving people control over how they plan their day or manage their workload can have a dramatic effect on motivation levels.

Relatedness – The quality of people’s interactions with others has a direct effect on their level of motivation. This can include someone’s relationship with their boss, with other team members, with other people within the organization and those within the supply chain as well as their social relationships.

Fairness – From an early age our sense of fairness is developed and honed. One just has to look at sibling rivalry to see this sense of fairness played out in the social world. At work, people’s sense of whether they are being treated fairly has a direct effect on their level of motivation. Moreover, if a staff member perceives they are being treated unfairly it is likely to have a significant demotivational impact.          

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see how organizations and leaders can apply these five SCARF factors to improve motivation among their staff. Equally, it is easy to see examples in most workplaces of how organizations and leaders can easily create a demotivational state by creating threat responses in these five areas.

For readers wishing to learn more about the SCARF model of human motivation and how it can be applied in the workplace, I recommend reading David Rock’s excellent book, Your Brain at Work. And of course, if you ever get a chance to see David speak at a conference or attend one of his excellent leadership workshops, I would encourage you to grasp the opportunity with open arms – it is likely to change the way you think about leadership!

There is also a fun online test available at SCARF Solutions, powered by David’s NeuroLeadership Group, that can be taken by individuals or teams. The output of the test provides  a useful indicator as to which of the five factors are most and least relevant to each individual.


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