Project Management and Change Management: The SCARF Model

By: Emily Walsh

As I’ve mentioned in my last two posts in this series, both Project Management and Change Management work hand-in-hand to meet the goals of a project and, more broadly, the goals of an organization. But change is not always easy, and resistance to change can derail your project and have a negative impact on end-user adoption. In today’s post, we’ll be covering David Rock’s SCARF Model for building collaboration and influence.

David Rock, who founded the NeuroLeadership Institute, uses findings from neuroscience and applies them to leadership challenges. I love this model because it combines scientific findings on how people process social “threats'' versus “rewards” and applies them to solving challenges of collaboration and influence in the workplace. And when you’re managing projects (especially large technology projects!), people can easily feel threatened, which often shows up as a fear of change or fear of learning and using new technologies. As a project manager, understanding how people respond to threats and rewards can provide you with insights to help keep your project on track.

So what is the SCARF Model? The SCARF Model highlights what many of us understand intuitively: people withdraw from situations when they feel threatened and they lean into situations where they are rewarded..

The SCARF model focuses on five social domains that can result in team members feeling more either more threatened or more rewarded:

  • Status: Am I being perceived or treated as “less than” or “better than” others who are also working on this project? The “status” domain is focused on people’s perceptions of their relative importance to others.

  • Certainty: Do I know what is expected of me as a project team member? The “certainty” domain is focused on people’s concerns about their ability to understand the future state and where they fit.

  • Autonomy: Do I have a choice in the changes that are being advanced via this project? The “autonomy” domain is focused on people’s sense of control over the project and decisions that may impact them.

  • Relatedness: Am I an “insider” in the project or change process? The “relatedness” domain is focused on people’s sense of safety with others.

  • Fairness: Am I being treated fairly compared to others on the project? The “fairness” domain is focused on people’s perceptions of fair exchanges occurring throughout your project.

Large projects, particularly those involving changes to team member’s day-to-day jobs or business processes, can easily elicit a “threat response” if any of the social domains are not met. Threat responses can surface rapidly - and they negatively impact people’s abilities to make decisions, solve problems, stay focused, and collaborate with others. The threat response (versus the reward response) is often more intense and more easily elicited - it needs to be carefully minimized during interactions about the project or upcoming change. A “rewarded brain”, on the other hand, has an easier time with collaboration, creativity, and insight.

So, how can you use this model? I use this model in two ways:

  • First, I use it as a “framing tool” for managing people when leading a project team - including during project team meetings as well as one-on-one interactions. Am I doing enough to provide rewards that “build the SCARF” for each team member?

  • Second, assuming that I might have dropped the ball and I haven’t been paying as much attention to project team members as I should be (it happens to all of us…), I use this as a diagnostic tool. If someone is struggling on a project, ask yourself what part of their SCARF is missing? Or has someone else on the project inadvertently “taken away their SCARF”? If you have trusting relationships with your project team members, you can also ask them what “part of their SCARF” is missing.

Thus, taking the time to give some thought to how you provide people with status, certainty, autonomy, and a sense of relatedness and fairness during each phase of your project can ultimately help you meet your objectives and implement systems and solutions that people will be excited to use.