SCARF The way to Wellbeing is via the Manager

May 01, 2024

We know that employee experience and wellbeing is overwhelmingly shaped by the manager. Despite this knowledge, we often persist with allocating resources to wellbeing initiatives that serve as sticky plasters for wellbeing wounds that run deep. To really move the dial on wellbeing we ought to promote the right people into leadership positions and then prioritise equipping them with the knowledge and tools necessary to become custodians of wellbeing.

So where do we start?

Start with the brain. Jonathan Haidt of NYU reminds us that ‘we are the descendents of people who paid a lot of attention when there was a rustle in the bushes´. This sensitivity to threat was key to our survival and evolution and has carried over and remains today. We are hardwired to move away from threat (sabre tooth tigers, physical attack from others, exclusion from the group) and move toward reward (food, water, sex, social connection).

Modern ‘threat’, for most readers here, presents socially in the workplace and probably looks like being micromanaged or criticised, feeling excluded, being passed over for promotion or worse still being let go. When we feel threatened acutely, we literally cannot think. When we feel threatened chronically, we become unwell. We want our managers to be able to minimise threat and move their teams towards reward - this is where we do our best work and where wellbeing resides.

An ancient brain in a modern environment.

This presents a unique challenge for managers: how to nurture and support teams operating in contemporary settings with brains that still react to ancient signals of threat and reward. It's in this gap between evolutionary conditioning and modern-day workplace demands that the SCARF model, developed by David Rock in 2008, offers invaluable insights. SCARF identifies five social domains—Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness—that trigger threat or reward responses. They shape our wellbeing in profound ways, as evidenced by consistent research findings:


SCARF & Wellbeing

๐’๐ญ๐š๐ญ๐ฎ๐ฌ: higher status yields more dopamine and serotonin and reduces cortisol and is a significant determinant of human longevity and health (Sapolsky 2004)

๐‚๐ž๐ซ๐ญ๐š๐ข๐ง๐ญ๐ฒ: experiencing uncertainty leads to anxiety and mental health problems (Massazza 2021)

๐€๐ฎ๐ญ๐จ๐ง๐จ๐ฆ๐ฒ: transformational leadership encourages affording autonomy to people which positively predicts positive measures of well-being, and negatively predicts negative measures of well-being’ (Arnold 2017)

๐‘๐ž๐ฅ๐š๐ญ๐ž๐๐ง๐ž๐ฌ๐ฌ: relatedness is built via trust and trust via transparency - ‘people at high trust companies report 74% less stress’ (Zak 2017)

๐…๐š๐ข๐ซ๐ง๐ž๐ฌ๐ฌ: being treated unfairly can affect your immune system - ‘experiences of discrimination, both acute and chronic, can impair immune function, characterised by elevated levels of inflammation’ (Cuevas et al 2020)

Using SCARF to create wellbeing in others.

The journey begins with awareness and intention. It's not just about recognizing the model's components but actively integrating them into daily interactions and organisational culture. For instance, our work with emerging managers in the tech industry recently illustrates the transformative power of applying SCARF through the Self Directed Feed Forward approach. Multiple SCARF rewards were addressed all at once which not only enhanced communication and team cohesion but also demonstrated that thoughtful application of insights from neuroscience can lead to significant improvements in workplace wellbeing.

Ultimately the social interactions between managers and their teams will determine how people experience work. The manager's ability to understand and apply the insights of the SCARF model can transform the workplace into a supportive environment that promotes not just productivity but also a sense of fulfilment and health. In essence, the way to wellbeing is via the manager, whose leadership and influence are critical in shaping a positive and thriving organisational culture.

Des Golden, Co-Founder, The Peak Performance Series