The SCARF Model and Reflections on Leadership and Teaching

 When I was a young high school teacher, I had a student named Scott in one of my classes. He and I usually got along, but there was always an underlying tension because he was the only 10th grader in a predominantly 9th grade class.

My students were accustomed to making presentations in class from time to time. On the day of one of our class presentations, a group of 9th grade students commanded the attention of their classmates from the front of the classroom. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Scott had his hood up and his head was down on his desk.

I quietly walked over to Scott and whispered, "Is everything okay?" When I didn't get an answer, I tapped his desk and repeated my question. Suddenly, Scott exploded in a tirade of emotion. He flipped over his chair, screamed obscenities, and walked right out the door. My class and I were stunned and confused by Scott's behavior.

Looking back, I was always confused by what happened that day. However, a recent article about the SCARF model immediately grabbed my attention and made me recall that distant day.

The SCARF Model

The SCARF model was designed by neuroscience researcher David Rock. The model is an acronym representing the different areas influencing human behavior and the triggers we experience as children and adults. Understanding this information can help us become better leaders, teachers, parents, and members of society. Let's dig into this acronym to learn more about the triggers that impact our behavior and reactions toward others.

  • Status: Status refers to our perception of our personal worth and importance to other people. When we feel of high status, we may feel comfortable and confident in a group. However, if our status is threatened, we may become defensive and even combative. This can happen when we're criticized or receive unsolicited advice. We can positively affect someone triggered by status by providing positive feedback, showing respect, and offering public acknowledgment.

  • Certainty: Certainty refers to the ability to predict the future or the stability we feel about the people, events, and environments in our lives. When we feel that others are non-transparent, unpredictable, and even dishonest, it can disrupt our sense of certainty. If certainty is lost, it can create aggravation and agitation inside, and we will do anything to regain a level of certainty. Therefore, it's very important to provide clarity, stability, and safety so that our followers, students, and peers feel certain.

  • Autonomy: Autonomy refers to our sense of control over events and people in the world around us. We are wired to desire autonomy and choice over the circumstances in our lives. When this is disrupted, it can often take the form of micromanagement, restrictions, and even manipulative behavior. We can foster a positive relationship with someone triggered by autonomy by providing choices that empower them and giving them responsibility.

  • Relatedness: Humans have been wired for connection since the dawn of time. Our ancient ancestors found safety in numbers, tribes, colonies, and groups. Being separated from the group meant certain death and isolation. We live in a world that is highly connected digitally but are extremely isolated and often lack the types of relationships our grandparents had. Relatedness means feeling safe around other people. When we don't feel safe around others physically, emotionally, and psychologically, it can trigger a response to protect ourselves—often a fight or flight response. We can support someone triggered by relatedness by developing positive relationships, being supportive, building trust, and even mentoring.

  • Fairness: A sense of fairness is ingrained in our human existence. Disagreements, social movements, protests, broken relationships, and even wars are created when there is a sense of unfairness and injustice. We yearn for equality and value in our peers' eyes. This can be quickly broken by unequal conditions, a lack of consistency, and preferential treatment. Therefore, it's very important to ensure we're transparent in our decisions and communication, have clear boundaries, and consider all perspectives when making decisions.


When I look back on that day, I realize I made several mistakes. First of all, I grew angry with Scott for his emotional outburst because my status was challenged. I called the office and wrote a scathing discipline referral. I didn't want to hear Scott's perspective or address the situation. I simply wrote Scott off and ignored him. Whenever Scott acted out again, I sent him to the office and wrote him up.

I never considered that Scott had a variety of factors influencing his outburst. There was an underlying tension throughout that semester based on his status. He was a 10th-grade student in a predominantly 9th-grade class, which most certainly hurt his sense of importance and value among others. He perceived himself as less than his classmates because he had failed the previous year and had to repeat the class.

I also didn't consider that Scott had a very difficult morning before he even walked into my classroom. There was a sense of uncertainty in his household that was still triggering him hours later. There's an expression I absolutely love that says, "Everyone's fighting a battle that others know nothing about. Be kind." I was unaware of many of the battles Scott was facing before he came into my classroom, such as a broken relationship with his parents, issues with friends, no food, and a variety of other factors.

This is not to say that my decision to address Scott's behavior was wrong, but I think I would have handled it differently. I probably would have had an honest conversation with him, giving him the opportunity to speak and allowing myself to listen to create a sense of relatedness and autonomy. I still would have communicated my expectations, but giving Scott the opportunity to be heard and to save face might have been a better approach.

Reflecting on my mistakes as a leader through the SCARF model, I remember the time I challenged a well-established veteran in the middle of a meeting, creating discomfort for everyone in the room. My ego was triggered because I felt that my status was threatened, so I returned the favor by threatening the status of this individual. Things were never the same between us, and people within the organization quickly took sides. There is no winner in that situation.

There was also the time when I felt completely mistreated because I had taken a position where I was paid poorly and overworked. I communicated the unfairness to anyone who would listen and eventually quit that position. When the position was opened for others within the organization to apply for, I quickly discouraged anyone from applying because it was completely unfair and not worth the money. My boss quickly caught wind of my campaign, and I was firmly told to change my approach. The negative interaction with this person has created professional roadblocks for me ever since. If I could go back and talk to my younger self, I would educate them on trying to view things from a different perspective and taking a different approach.

If I had known about the SCARF model, I believe I would be a completely different educator, leader, father, husband, son, and person. Not only would I have been more aware of my triggers, I would have been more aware of how my actions and words impact others.

Matt Bergman (2024)

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