Neuroscience of Change – SCARF Model in Simple Terms

You feel like you have been kicked in the gut.  You just received news that your project is being cut by the client.  Despite your hard work and consistently high performance, your job is at risk.  Management tells you to immediately stop work on the project and temporarily reassigns you to a team of people you have never met.

As you react to the news, the neurons in your brain are responding in the exact same way they would if you were physically assaulted, which brings about the “kicked in the gut” feeling.  Why do our bodies react this way, and how can we as change agents understand this reaction in others?

Dr. David Rock developed a model based on the acronym SCARF: status, certainty, autonomy and fairness, that helps change management practitioners quickly remember some triggers that make us feel threatened or rewarded in a situation:

S – Status – A threat to your status brings the same neurons to life as physical pain.  Likewise, an increase in status provides a response similar to a monetary reward.  When delivering difficult news or feedback to the work of an individual, look to ways that the individual can play a role in developing the news or feedback themselves.  This can lessen the negative impact while also providing them a  feeling of increased status by being a part of the solution.

C – Certainty – The brain shuns uncertainty.  By providing incremental updates on a regular basis, you can provide certainty in a time of organizational shift.  Even partial information is enough to decrease the stress of uncertainty.

A – Autonomy – Feeling out of control increases stress in the brain.  When an individual finds a level of control in a situation, their stress level decreases.  Look for ways to provide some control even when individuals do not have ultimate control over the situation.

R – Relatedness – When placed in a roomful of strangers, stress goes up.  As soon as we connect with others, we begin to feel a bond.  As any new group forms, it is important that all team members have a sense of relatedness that flows evenly across the team, keeping a watchful eye out for factions that may form.

F – Fairness – When an exchange is perceived as unfair, it elicits a negative response.  Be clear about being fair and address the perception of unfairness through transparency.


By working to develop positive responses to the elements above, you can clear away much of the stress that creates resistance and reduces the productivity of our teams.  As you develop your stakeholder management plans, consider SCARF as you develop your approach.