A Leading Perspective

Pragmatic insights for the leader in you

SCARF – it’s comforting

You can’t build a great house on a weak foundation.

My mother, Carol Strider


I had the pleasure of teaching a class the other day on leadership and employee engagement. My primary objective of this particular course was to help participants identify some pragmatic ideas to not only engage an otherwise “positive” workforce but to re-engage employees who have, for a variety of reasons, become dis-engaged.

I offered up research findings and trends, I discussed assessments and the inferences we can draw from them, and I facilitated discussions about the participants’ own engagement and the fluctuations to such over the years.

But in addition to all of that, I focused on what I consider to be basic “needs” in the workplace…the things that can either “make or break” an employee’s willingness to be engaged at work.


Years ago, I stumbled across Dr. David Rock‘s website.  After reading one of his academic reports titled “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others,” I realized that the items referenced in the model were basic employment needs.  At the time, I had about 18 years as a Human Resources Professional and I could not identify one “dis-engagement,” “sabotage” or “hostile” situation in which the employee DID NOT have one of these basic needs being threatened.

I’ve been an advocate for ensuring these needs are met ever since.


I challenge supervisors to think of the below items as “requirements” for a positive work foundation.  

They need a positive sense of: 


• The employee needs to consider himself “important” to the organization and he should understand his importance in relationship to others.  This doesn’t always come naturally so the supervisor should actively communicate it.
• When changes to an employee’s “status” occur, the supervisor should clearly communicate them and, whenever possible, “transfer” the employee’s importance on the next thing.  (For instance, “your work was instrumental in completing project X and so I am re-adjusting your priorities to allow for work on project Y so it can be finalized in the same manner.)
• When someone is ridiculed or a victim of condescending tones (from supervisor, peers or customers), his status is threatened and therefore, the supervisor should model positive/encouraging/forgiving communications or otherwise actively correct negative behavior.


• While certainty cannot be guaranteed, the supervisor should help decrease the threat “uncertainty” almost always provides.  The supervisor can do this by clearly communicating roles, expectations, consequences, etc.
• The Supervisor who is comfortable talking about future plans and, likewise, about potential changes to those plans, all the while with a positive attitude and confidence, will find that his employees will start to find a bit more “comfort” with ambiguity.


• Employees like to have power over things that affect them…don’t we all?  That being said, if an employee is allowed to make decisions about his work (perhaps not the “when it’s due” or the “standard at which it’s done” but instead, the “how it’s done” or “when I do it”), he will perceive less “threat” to his need for autonomy.
• A Supervisor who clearly communicates expectations about behavior and performance, and identifies consequences for positive/negative performance gives the employee a sense of “control” over these things.


• While employees enjoy having a sense of individuality, they almost always crave a sense of belonging.  Therefore, the supervisor who encourages teamwork or teamplay is also encouraging a healthy work community.
• The supervisor who communicates the goals of employee in relationship to the goals of the team or organization helps to increase the employee’s sense of belonging.


• When an employee feels he or someone else is being treated “unfairly,” he may respond with frustration, hostility or similar behaviors.  This begets other negative behaviors, and so a cycle is formed.  That being said, the supervisor who actively checks his/her behavior for fairness and works to ensure the “perception” of fairness is probable, will see a positive result in his employee’s behavior.
• The supervisor who considers and then communicates (to proper extent) all of the circumstances (totality of the circumstances) can decrease the “perceived threat” to the employee’s sense of fairness.
• The supervisor who realizes that equality is not always fair, and makes changes to his/her decisions and actions accordingly, will notice that his employees’ perceptions of fairness will stabilize.
 So there you have it…scarfs are pretty comforting.





Dr. Rock is a pretty smart guy…he spent a lot of time in school and, I’m sure, the library and he knows A LOT about our brains.  Read his stuff…you’ll get tons out of it.

I’m a pretty smart gal…I have spent a bit of time in school and “The Library” was my favorite bar when I attended college in Munich.  I’ve been in Human Resources for nearly 20 years.  That being said, I know a lot about human behavior and trust me, if your employee’s SCARF is threatened, you’ll be a long way from engaging them in their work.

Bundle up…and good luck!  



AppreciationCommunicationsEmployee EngagementEmployee RelationsEncouragementEngagementGood FaithHappinessHuman ResourcesLeadershipPerformance ManagementRecognitionTeamworkValueWorkforce Satisfaction

Heather Kinzie • October 22, 2013

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