The SCARF model for understanding culture: Part 3

Last week I discussed the first two elements of the SCARF model for understanding corporate culture: Status and Certainty. Here are the final three areas that can elicit a reward/threat response in employees: Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. If CEOs want to actively nurture their company cultures, they should be cognizant of all of these. 

3) Autonomy: Give me some control

People want control over their own environments. Less control leads to higher stress, which makes employees less effective at tasks requiring advanced mental processes. Often when people leave lucrative corporate positions to start their own enterprise, it is driven by their need to get control over their work environment. They want to feel that they have a choice about the issues that affect them.

Obviously, being part of any team reduces the autonomy of the members to some extent. The challenge is providing as much autonomy as possible within a corporate structure. CEOs should consider autonomy when developing and reviewing corporate policy.

For example, I once heard of a company with a ten-page dress code that specified everything from the length of hems to the openness of the employees’ shoes. Similar to government laws, corporate policies have a tendency to pile up over the years one on top of the other. As a CEO, employees will hold you responsible for all company policies, whether or not you created them. You must examine all policies and procedures and find opportunities to add autonomy back into the workplace.

4) Relatedness: Maximize social interaction


Photo Credit: Mr. Mark via Compfight cc

Human survival depends on the brain’s ability to quickly recognize others as friend or foe. Almost all people like to be part of a group pursuing a common purpose. Once again, the creative aspects of the brain function best when we engage with people whom we consider friend rather than foe.

Teams perform better if they have experienced a group bonding experience. Whether it is a sports team that pulls out an unlikely victory or a sales team that closes a huge sale, the experience of overcoming obstacles together creates a highly positive connection with the other members of the team. This sense of relatedness breaks down the barrier of distrust that naturally exists between strangers.

It is easy for small companies to create a high sense of relatedness in their culture. When everyone can gather around the water cooler or the lunch table, it creates a natural sense of “we are in this together.” As a company grows past the size where people can keep personal, social relationships with everyone (commonly thought to be around 150, Robin Dunbar’s number), it’s critical for the CEO to actively look for ways to increase relatedness.

Also, it is important to find ways for new employees to establish close relationships with other team members. This will help break down the normal friction of human interaction. In a workplace, the more socially connected the employees, the easier it will be to drive high performance.

5) Fairness: Apply policies consistently

Perceived unfairness triggers a threat response in employees. Anyone who has raised multiple children knows that the concept of fairness shows up early in a child’s development and stays with us no matter how many times we are told the world is not fair. When it comes to employee matters such as pay, promotions or rewards, a sense of unfairness can often arise from a lack of consistently applied rules. The more objective the rules are perceived to be, the less chance employees will feel that they are unfair. Additionally, allowing the employees themselves to make decisions around how work is assigned or how limited resources are used can help ensure a sense of fairness.

Wrapping up in the SCARF Model

David Rock concludes his paper on the SCARF model this way:

“Understanding the domains in the SCARF model and finding personalized strategies to effectively use these brain insights, can help people become better leaders, managers, facilitators, coaches, teachers and even parents.”

As a CEO, the SCARF model has helped me understand why certain approaches and policies work to build great cultures and high-performance companies. No one policy will create a high-performance culture. To be successful requires a consistent and holistic focus on all the factors that affect employee engagement. In my next few posts, I’ll share some of the specific policies and concepts that have worked for me in building high-performance cultures.

In the meantime, ping me with your thoughts, questions and examples (both good and bad) of the SCARF model that you’ve seen in the workplace.

 Photo Credit: Rune T via Compfight cc

Related articles:

The SCARF model for understanding culture: Part 1

The SCARF model for understanding culture: Part 2



  1. 10 measures to a high-performance culture: 8-10 | The American CEO - […] and status as defined by the SCARF model often form a powerful negative combination where employee perks are involved.…
  2. Are you better at relating to employees or setting performance targets? | The American CEO - […] the attention they receive from these personable CEOs and return the affection. Their desire for relatedness is fulfilled, and…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Blogs