Coaching and neuroscience: The SCARF model

Neuroscience is providing a lot of data about how people learn and what motivates them to achieve change. One of the most useful models to emerge from this, in the context of coaching is SCARF, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Neuro-leadership specialist David Rock explains it in this way[1]: Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

These five domains activate either the ‘primary reward’ or ‘primary threat’ circuitry (and associated networks) of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to one’s status activates similar brain networks to a threat to one’s life. In the same way, a perceived increase in fairness activates the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary reward…

Personal and executive coaching can increase all five SCARF domains. Status can be increased through regular positive feedback, attention to incremental improvements, and the achievement of large goals. Certainty can be increased by identifying central goals, and subsequently reducing the uncertainty inherent in maintaining multiple focuses. Breaking down large goals into smaller steps increases certainty about how a goal can be reached. Finding ways to take action when challenges appear insurmountable can increase autonomy. Relatedness can be increased through the relationship with the coach. Unfairness can be reduced through seeing situations from other perspectives. The SCARF model helps explain why coaching can be so effective at facilitating change, and points to ways of improving its delivery.

It’s helpful in any coaching assignment to explore each of the five domains in the context of the client’s perceptions of their goal and of their environment. Does the client have a positive perspective on all five, or does, for example, the change they are expected to implement involve a potential reduction in personal status? Identifying potential problems early on provides an opportunity to address them, so that the client’s energies are all reward oriented and not threat oriented. Clues that the client is threat oriented in relation to a change include procrastination; talking about it from a rational perspective, while ignoring how they feel about it; and suppressed anger.

[1] Text extracted from Rock, D (2008) SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, Neuroleadership Journal, Vol 1 pp 1-9

© David Clutterbuck. All rights reserved

Our free content is available to everyone. It includes a limited range of Blogs, Videos and Briefing Papers on key topics and the latest trends. If you want to expand your knowledge even further, or support your development or business with up-to-date information and research, sign up for a FREE TRIAL to gain access to the full content of over 500 blogs, briefing papers and videos within our resource library.

Membership with CCMI offer you will access to all the content within this resource of over 200 blogs, video briefings and more.