SCARF Model Sheds New Light on Employee Motivation

Perhaps you never thought of human resource management and neuroscience in the same sentence. But new advanced from the neuroscience field are challenging old assumptions about worker and workplace motivation.

One new model, thanks to advancements in neuroscience, is the SCARF model. The model challenges the way we have thought about motivation in the past, and provides new truths about the workings of the mind and how companies should go about establishing effective cultures.

“With the burgeoning field of neuroscience and advanced tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging, there is scientific evidence that the source of motivation is all in the head,” writes Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director for UNC Executive Development, in Motivation on the Brain – Applying the Neuroscience of Motivation in the Workplace.

Her research paper provides advice on how HR can take advantage of new models of motivation. (See related blog: HR’s New Challenge: Optimizing the Brain

The SCARF Model of Motivation

The SCARF model ― a combination of motivational theory and neuroscience ― was developed by David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work. The model provides HR professionals with new ideas on improving organization-wide motivation.

Rock’s research shows how dopamine is one of the primary chemicals that our brains produce to decide when we feel a sense of reward or punishment. He demonstrates how, based on chemical reactions, the human brain is hardwired to respond to five key social needs or domains:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

“While the five domains of the SCARF model appear to be interlinked in many ways,” Rock notes, “there is also value in separating out and understanding each domain individually.”

Five Motivational Drivers

The following are some highlights from Rock’s research paper, valuable insights for HR and for managers in general:

  • Status: It is easy to accidentally threaten a person’s sense of status, Rock warns. “A status threat can occur through giving advice or instructions, or simply suggesting someone is slightly ineffective at a task.”
  • Certainty: The brain craves a sense of understanding the future, the SCARF model suggests. “As people build business plans, strategies, or map out an organization structure, they feel increasing levels of clarity about how an organization might better function in the future,” Rock notes.
  • Autonomy: People need to have choices. “A reduction in autonomy, for example when being micromanaged, can generate a strong threat response.”
  • Relatedness: People are at their best when they are part of the group. “Increasing globalization highlights the importance of managing relatedness threats. Collaboration between people from different cultures, who are unlikely to meet in person, can be especially hard work.”
  • Fairness: What people feel is fair and unfair is about much more than money. “The threat from perceived unfairness can be decreased by increasing transparency, and increasing the level of communication and involvement about business issues.” For example, Rock notes that providing employees with details about financial processes can provide a motivational advantage.

Embracing the Softer Side

“Understanding these drivers can help individuals and organizations to function more effectively, reducing conflicts that occur so easily amongst people, and increasing the amount of time people spend in the approach state, a concept synonymous with good performance,” Rock concludes.

HR must consider the “social aspects” of the brain and human behavior when adopting new policies and organizational structures. HR managers can also help leaders and managers understand the impact their actions may have on status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. The SCARF model provides new ways to think about motivation as much more than a business transaction. SCARF suggests that people transactions count for a lot and, if ignored, can undermine even the best business strategies.

HR professionals are urged to learn more about emerging models such as SCARF. Such research is likely to have a big impact on future HR best practices.