S.C.A.R.F. – Wrapping our Brain Around Being Social


When working with students and other adults we often ignore their social needs. We hasten to find solutions and answers that we believe will satisfy someone’s request or fulfill our need to be authoritative or empowered to direct others. However, if as leaders we could lend ourselves to acknowledging the mental state of others we may gain an appreciation for where they are and how they see things. This has the potential to develop the person professionally and stretch their learning.  This was one of my learnings as a result of participating in two trainings the DEEL employees participated in recently: Advanced Cognitive CoachingSM and Advanced Adaptive Schools, both of which focused on developing my own identity, capabilities, and skills in developing others.


This brings the focus to S.C.A.R.F which has nothing to do with fashion and everything with our our brain responses. In the book, Your Brain at Work, author David Rock shares the critical functions of the brain as it relates to our social needs. S.C.A.R.F is an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.


Status – One study has shown that when we recall experiences, it is those that caused social pain we remember more often than those that caused physical pain. It is amazing that we can relive the first kiss or the first heartbreak again and again but seldom do we recall the pain of childbirth or breaking a limb. I am sure an athlete much more remembers the pain of missing a sporting event than the pain of the injury that caused them to miss the game.

As leaders, we must be aware that giving feedback in the form of answers or solutions can cause our status to be viewed as threatening toward the followers. The limbic system (which is our fight or flight response system) fires when a person feels their own status is threatened. However, if we mediate their thinking to make decisions their sense of status is heightened, causing the reward circuits of the brain to activate the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is where the functions of understanding, deciding, recall and memory reside in the brain – the things we actually want people to do!.

Certainty – Our brain has a strong limbic response toward the unknown. When we experience certainty, this puts more of our cortex at work and we are able to make predictions. Research shows that we consciously monitor 40 cues from our environment and monitor over two million subconsciously in order to gather a sense of certainty. Followers need to experience certainty when they face issues instead unpredictability.

Autonomy – As a mediator of thinking, the leader should allow the follower to make decisions based on choices they determines are important to them. Autonomy is the idea of being in control and self-directed. If holonomy is the whole community then autonomy is your place in and how you relate to others in the community. With control or the lack of it, one may feel stress that makes them feel threatened. The notion of choice increase our sense of autonomy thus increasing chemical changes in the brain that reduces the limbic response.

Relatedness – As humans we are wired with the need to be social. For us, human connection or touch is just as vital to us as food and water. Because our neurons allow us to feel emotion, when there is no safety our very health and well being are threatened. When we are in the presence of strangers, we automatically decide if the person should be considered a friend or a foe. If we sense a feeling of uneasiness based on social cues, we default to a threat response. On the other hand if there is a feeling of trust, our hormones release oxytocin which regulates social interactions. If relatedness is low, meaning the follower feels threatened, one strategy is to check your physical rapport  with the person.  When threat is increased the hormone cortisol is produced, and cortisol reduces thinking. Along with the production of cortisol, stress in intensified and the pre-frontal activity is decrease. In other words, our brain is not in learning mode.

Fairness – Often times fairness is not discussed between persons. However, fairness may be the most crucial aspect of S.C.A.R.F. since it can be a source of either threat or reward. From the perspective of threat, when one feels they are being treated unfairly,the brain responds in a similar manner.  The limbic response is high and coaching usually does not result in an outcome where the coachee feels supported. However, when the sense of fairness is present for the follower, hormones that support the frontal cortex are release and there is a sense of interdependence.

So this raises the question, how does S.C.A.R.F. relate or what is the significance of its meaning?  We have a responsibility to those whom we lead to be active listeners. This can be accomplished when we embrace our identity as mediators and further understand the brain’s reactions to how interact with them.  What we are learning from research is that how we paraphrase, pause, and pose questions has a significant impact on how one perceives and constructs their status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness .  In the big scheme of things, a person wants to be heard and after speaking with you, s/he wants to have a sense of confidence that they are moving in a positive direction. We all have two major responses and based on our sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, we can embrace learning in a safe and supportive environment, or we can become overwhelmed and react to a perceived threat and shut down cognitively and emotionally.

Students experience these feelings when teachers do not establish professional relationships yet expect them to learn under their tutelage. Teachers themselves relate to similar emotions when administrators do not establish an affinity between.  We know this all intuitively – but having a scaffold like S.C.A.R.F. can help raise our consciousness so we can intentionally think . Understanding the brain can impact our professional relationships and cause development to increase. It is when we wrap our minds around S.C.A.R.F that learning,  success, and achievement are accomplished.

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