Using the SCARF Model to Lead Through COVID-19

Yes, warmer days are ahead. You’ve likely started to pack away your winter scarves, but I’d suggest keeping them out a little longer… your leadership SCARF, that is. SCARF is an acronym created by Dr. David Rock, a leading scholar of neuroleadership. It stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Our brain is in the highest state of engagement when we have SCARF. Subconsciously, we process these variables, which drive how we feel. When we find positives around SCARF, we want to run toward the reward (e.g., work, organization, change). When we find the variables trending more negative, we want to run away from it.

As leaders we must be purposeful about how our words and actions relate to SCARF if we want to increase the brain state of engagement. If we are intentional, we can positively impact conscious and subconscious reactions to the workplace and change.

Certainty is the one variable that is a real challenge in today’s COVID-19 situation, as our ability to predict the future diminishes. There is increased uncertainty in nearly every aspects of people’s lives, and business leaders can’t give much certainty to the aspects of people’s lives that are typically under their control. So, let’s focus on what we can control and work to beef up the other components in an attempt to make up for the lack of certainty.


Status is how important we feel relative to others. If a person feels they have equal or elevated status when compared to peers, this will be more of a reward brain state as opposed to a person who feels peers are seen as more important than they are.

Ideas for increasing status:

  • Involve others in decisions, where possible, especially ones that impact their work.
  • Elicit feedback from your direct reports on what you can do better and how you can support their success.
  • Assign stretch projects that give your employees a chance to shine and explore new skills and abilities.
  • Give consistent, specific feedback on what your team member does well.
  • Ask your team member for their view on strengths and opportunities.


Autonomy is defined as the “right to self-govern.” Basically, it means giving a person as many decision rights as possible so they can act independently without checking in with a leader. During change and/or chaotic times at work, it’s likely decision rights are up in the air. That would be the first thing to try to nail down, where possible, to increase autonomy.

Ideas for increasing autonomy:

  • Share as much as you can about the company’s strategy and long- and short-term direction. This will help your employee take independent actions that are aligned.
  • Create RASCI charts that spell out decision rights for various roles that collaborate on a process together.
  • Empower employees. Support them to make independent problem solving by complimenting what you see them doing and letting them know you trust their judgment.
  • Resist the urge to give too much direction. Very few people enjoy being micromanaged with step-by-step instructions on how to do the job.


I’m betting you’ve heard the phrase, “there’s safety in numbers.” In this case, it’s not physical safety but psychological safety people are seeking. More than ever, we need connectedness and relationships with peers who can relate to what we’re going through. We need a place where we can bring our whole self and be fully valued.

Ideas for increasing relatedness:

  • Hold regular 1:1s with each team member, as well as team meetings where everyone has a chance to connect on something informal before you dive in to work.
  • Look out for colleagues who might be more isolated in their work. Connect with them more regularly and consider creating a mentorship between them and another leader in your organization.
  • Use video for virtual meetings. The use of nonverbal communication helps limit the potential for miscommunication.
  • Schedule monthly happy hours – or virtual happy hours – or other activities that allows a team to socialize for a bit outside of work.
  • Celebrate diversity of thought. Help employees see examples of where someone bringing a different idea or opinion helped the team get a better solution.


This one is just as it sounds. Fairness is about an individual feeling what is happening to and with them is fair. This could include job assignments, position in the hierarchy and pay.

Ideas for increasing fairness:

  • Share details around why decisions are made.
  • When possible, allow individuals and teams to weigh in on options.
  • Be transparent on how changes affect various stakeholders so there are as few surprises as possible as to how individuals and teams are impacted.
  • Follow best practices around pay for performance and compensation to increase equity.
  • When filling roles and considering succession plans, create a list of skills, attitudes and behaviors to evaluate individuals against to limit the chance of emotional decisions.

I hope that introducing a model like SCARF gives you tangible ideas for leading with confidence during this complex environment of COVID-19. While you may already use some of these methods, let this blog confirm your instincts and give you some things to reflect on. Knowing how to lead the brain is useful in normal conditions, and it will be immensely powerful in times of turbulence and change such as these.

SCARF Resources

If you want to learn more about this topic, here are some resources:

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