Relating to leadership and leading teams through change, we analyse the SCARF model, which, when combined with emotional intelligence and communication skills, shall make any transition easier for your team.

Your secret weapon in leading people through change.

Have you heard about the SCARF model?


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SCARF is based in social neuroscience (the study of how the brain responds to social interactions). Understanding SCARF can provide critical insights for leaders struggling to work out why their team isn’t responding well to a change. 

SCARF stands for: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Adapted from David Rock, 2008.

Everybody hates change.

If you’re a leader, you have probably noticed that nobody likes changes at work. But change is the only constant, so what can we do?

The best approach is to understand the human response to change.

Change makes people feel stressed, and the stress response is an ancient evolutionary adaptation that has helped humans to identify and minimize threats for hundreds of thousands of years. There is absolutely no point pretending we can train people out of their response to change! But we can use an understanding of the factors that trigger a stress response to take a sensible approach to change management.


These are the five main factors that are likely to trigger a stress response. Think about how you might use this knowledge in your approach to change management.

Status: we like to feel important and valued. If a change threatens a person’s status you will see a strong reaction in response.

Certainty: we want to know what is going to happen to us. Change disrupts our ability to ‘see’ the future and this uncertainty makes us feel threatened.

Autonomy: we want to be in control, and to feel that we are free to make choices. People who sense that a change is ‘being done to them’ will feel stripped of their autonomy and out of control.

Relatedness: we need to feel that we belong, are accepted, and are understood by others. That doesn’t mean that everyone is a gregarious extravert, but feelings of relatedness affect how safe we feel at work. Changes to team composition can upset this even if team members aren’t close friends.

Fairness: we are incredibly sensitive to perceptions of fairness. If we feel we are being treated unfairly, we will fight change or try to reshape it into a change we would rather see.

As a leader, your actions could be perceived by your team as threatening, depending on how you manage their experience of SCARF factors when you communicate and implement change. 

Remember that no model on its own is enough to solve complex interpersonal challenges.

SCARF is the handrail you can follow to unpick possible trigger factors when managing change, but you will need to combine this with emotional intelligence and communication skills to navigate the full change process.

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