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  • Writer's picturegeoffashton

SCARF: Managing the Five Domains of Experience

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. According to its creator, Dr David Rock, it’s a model that describes five domains of experience that activate strong threats and rewards in the brain. These activations influence a wide range of human behaviours. In very general terms, we seek to avoid and distance ourselves from threats, and are drawn towards rewards. I was recently in conversations with colleagues as to how this framework could support a coaching conversation exploring challenging interpersonal contexts. Here’s our thoughts and, under each heading, a coaching question you can reflect on.


We’ve all been there. You walk into a meeting where you are the sole representative of your business unit or organisation. There are five other people in the room. What starts to go on in your head? Very quickly, you are likely to start comparing yourself to the other people present to see to whom you are drawn, and who feels like a threat. You may decide where you fit in this particular social hierarchy of importance. Did do you prepare yourself for this moment? If not what could you have done to help you manage your reactions?

A good coaching conversation can help you get ready for meetings like this by exploring how you seek to present yourself – how you “show up” – and consciously consider what you are looking for in others. How do you find yourself reacting to the way people dress, the language they use when they speak, their tone and volume of voice, or how they project themselves? Take yourself back to a time when you walked into a meeting like the one described above and consider the following question.

‘If you were to line up people in the room from the most important to the least important, who would go where? What happens if you change the criteria by which you judge ‘”importance?”‘


Certainty refers to our need for clarity and the ability to make accurate predictions about the future. We constantly have to live with a level of uncertainty, but how much can we handle before it becomes an issue? Consider the following formula.

c – u + s = – p

This helpful formula reminds us that:

control, minus uncertainty, plus support equals reduced pressure.

How much certainty do you need and how does this need manifest itself? Where do you get that sense of certainty from? One way to think about this, is to explore how you react in typical social and work  situations. To what extent do you always feel the need to answer a challenge with a riposte, when an alternative could be to broaden the issue by asking a question, or referring it to the wider group for comment? How comfortable are you saying “I don’t know” or “I don’t have a view on that”? You can refer to Professor David Clutterbuck’s helpful article to identify what you really need to control. Identify factors that create uncertainty – do you get nervous when you lack data, or are you more concerned about the way people react to you? What kinds of support reduce that uncertainty? What does “pressure” feel like to you in a social or work situation and how does it manifest itself? Begin to explore this area with the following question:

How would you fill in the formula above with your own values for the indicators?


Autonomy is the feeling of control over events, and is linked to agency – the power we have to bring about change. My colleague Jeremy Lewis reckons that: “Behind every high autonomy need is a high structure need.” We all work within structures, whether these be hierarchies, routines, or cultural norms. Some of these are more important to us than others, so when an important structure appears to be threatened this will constitute a significant challenge to our sense of autonomy. Good coaching will help you identify and explore your needs for structure and how to create or modify structures of your own.

When was the last time you became really uncomfortable with a change you found hard to manage? What underlying structures were being shaken?


How connected you feel to people around you is the indicator of your sense of relatedness. In general we feel greater trust and connection to people we think are similar to us (“in group preference”) and greater disconnection to people we perceive as dis-similar or as being members of other groups (“out-group bias”). Relatedness isn’t just something to focus on because it makes us feel good. Strong social relationships impact longevity – some studies indicate that the health of our social connections has a grater impact on lifespan than smoking cigarettes.

Of course, we are never going to have brilliant relationships with everyone, if for no other reason than the fact that other parties will be making their own choices about how related they want to be to us. But what we can do is work out, as best we can, what makes us see people as those we place in our own mental “in group” and “out group” and what we can do to lessen any distance we feel between ourselves and others.

What criteria do you use to put people in your mental “in groups” and “out groups”? How can you test the validity of those criteria to see if you are missing out on better relationships?


David Rock argues that our ideas regarding what is “fair” develop over time and are based both on our experiences and our emotional responses to those experiences. He uses the word “exchanges” to describe social interactions. If your manager or client responds to your work differently to similar work done by a colleague, it’s possible that you are experiencing an unfair exchange. How do you react to that? You may be OK with being beaten by a better player, but feel aggrieved by people who cheat the system to their own advantage. You may also find yourself responding to perceived unfairness towards others. It’s not just a particular exchange that brings about a reaction, but the very idea of fairness may be an important underlying value.

A typical way of minimising the risk of real or perceived unfairness is to create as much clarity in a situation as possible. In a meeting context, what are the ground rules, and on the basis of what mutual expectations are we working? Where people are treated differently, is there a rationale for that? If you don’t agree with it, what could you do to influence it to make it more equitable?

Thinking about your working relationships, what examples can you think of in which you saw fair and unfair exchanges? What was being exchanged and what would have made the exchanges more equitable?

Brining it all together

The five domains are not mutually exclusive and you will be able to see interdependencies between them. Why not start by taking a short online SCARF assessment and use the questions in this article to explore your own responses to the five domains.

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