How To Get Ahead By Getting Along

In my last article, I talked about the three different brain areas and how they impact the way we lead. Now I’d like to focus on one particular area that fascinates me in particular – the mammalian limbic system.

Why? Because we work in human systems. Whether it’s at the team level or we’re considering the organization as a whole, we need to get ahead together. And our mammalian limbic systems play a huge role in how we do so, by collaborating and influencing one another.

The Limbic Brain: Make People WANT to Follow You

I’m going to introduce the SCARF Model, developed in 2008 by leadership coach David Rock. In his paper SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others, he presented a very useful acronym that leaders can use to trigger intrinsic motivation in others.

His basic premise?

There are 5 elements to remember. Not respecting these elements activates the same brain areas in people as if we were inflicting physical pain on them – fight, flight, or freeze.

But by respecting these elements, you can trigger others to want to follow you through intrinsic motivation.

Much nicer than using control, right? After all, it’s impossible to lead others if nobody is willing to follow you.

5 SCARF Elements

So what are the 5 elements?

SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.


Formal status is only one part of this; as a leader, it helps to appreciate how important our status is to us as humans. Back in the day, higher status within a group was related to more opportunities to mate, eat, and survive – we’d be more likely to pass our genes along to the next generation.

These days, we could argue that the same applies, and a lot of this can be attributed to the limbic brain. When our value to and position in a group are called into question, our fight, flight, or freeze instincts become active. When we respect another person’s status, we get a positive response instead.

  • Leaders can respect status by listening to people, valuing their input, treating them as mature adults, and appreciating the positive things they do.


Certainty refers to the brains’ preference for patterns and predictability, which we’re hard-wired to associate with safety. Needless to say, people often interpret unexpected changes as threats, so providing certainty as a leader has a positive impact on the limbic system.

  • Leaders who describe the future and what outcomes to expect are good at freeing up others to focus on shaping their world, rather than sending them into a panic.


This one is about control. Imagine feeling the need to act on something but being unable to do so – how stressed out would you feel? This is the limbic system’s fight, flight, or freeze response kicking in once again, and it occurs frequently when leaders decide to micromanage.

By respecting people’s autonomy, a leader can get the opposite response – intrinsic motivation.

  • Give people autonomy and train them to get used to it, and you’ll be helping them feel respected, trusted, and driven.


“Am I in the group, or out of it?” Relatedness is about two things: safety from external ‘outside world’ threats, and the possibility of having trusting in-group relationships.

How do our limbic brains come into it? Research says that only 30% of our communication is verbal. 70% is non-verbal, and we’ve evolved to respond much faster to the latter. Relatedness can be developed by a leader who is both consistent, and vulnerable – the more their words and actions are aligned, the more others feel as though they can trust you.

  • Help people feel safe by being vulnerable, and you’ll be respecting their need for relatedness.


If the limbic brain evolved so early on, how can fairness be important? Interestingly, there’s solid research indicating that the basis for morality is already present in the mammalian brain. As social creatures, we need to reconcile our interests as individuals with those of the group.

When we feel as though we give more than we receive, the limbic system detects a threat – something is wrong, and it’s not an equal exchange.

  • We can respect fairness by building up the ‘emotional bank accounts’ of others. It’s as simple as doing things that have a positive impact on them: paying compliments, making fair decisions, and doing favors. If and when you need to make an unpopular decision as a leader, you will at least have some money left over in the account.

What do you think about the SCARF elements? Do you have any examples of the acronym in action?