Why you need SCARF to protect your business from the impact of Covid19

Published on 15th March 2020

Why you need SCARF to protect your business from the impact of Covid19

Every day Covid19 seems to bring new challenges for people and businesses. It doesn’t matter whether we think governments and individuals are overreacting or not reacting enough, this virus is already changing the way millions of businesses are behaving.

How do you keep people connected?

One of my clients is based in Milan and his team has been working from home for three weeks now. The city looks like a post-apocalyptic ghost town as summed up this video accompanied by the Simon and Garfunkel hit the sounds of silence.

There was no preparation for this change. It was instant. It’s relatively straightforward to deal with the practical reality of a team that is working remotely. You can keep them connected if the broadband is good enough and if everyone has the technology to keep on working.

But how can leaders keep people FEELING connected?

Covid19 is making everyone anxious. This anxiety is much more than about just catching the virus.  It’s about the huge uncertainty the virus is creating. People are uncertain about the impact this will have on their employer, their job, their ability to pay their bills.

This is a genuine test of leadership. How does a leader create certainty for every employee? I believe that the SCARF framework provides a very useful checklist for leaders to follow.

If you are new to SCARF, it’s a framework created by a neuroscientist called David Rock that is based on the five needs our brain has for us to feel happy and productive and work. The five letters of SCARF stand for:

STATUS – our need to feel that we, and the work that we do is valued by our colleagues

CERTAINTY – our need to know what will happen next
AUTONOMY – our need to feel like we have some control over what we do every day
RELATEDNESS – our need to feel like we are among friends – in a community
FAIRNESS – our need to feel like we are fairly treated.

So how can SCARF help us battle the impact of Covid19?

Let’s start with CERTAINTY. Obviously. you can’t be certain what will happen with this outbreak, how long it will last etc. But you can create a sense of certainty about how you and your colleagues will cope with the challenge. It’s vital that you make it completely explicit about how the team will act.

Just imagine all the things people will be uncertain about when sat at home on their own. Simple questions will need answers. How often should I check in with my line manager? How do I keep my clients confident that work is carrying on as normal? What are the priorities I should focus on?

Leaders will need to provide answers to all these questions. It would important to use active listening techniques to surface all the questions and then provide the answers. It will be just as important to have a regular check-in with the whole team so that any new questions can be asked. Creating certainty once is helpful. But in a fluid situation like Covid19, creating certainty frequently is essential.

AUTONOMY – being available to answer questions to create certainty is one thing, but leaders can’t do that 24×7. So, it’s vital you make clear what people can decide for themselves. Some people will naturally decide what to do. But others have a preference to have the parameters within which they work to be very clear. Suddenly, being thrust into a new and unexpected scenario can be very unsettling for people with these behavioural preferences. So, it’s vital identify leaders set very clear priorities for people to focus on for the week ahead, if not more often. It’s also important to explain when guidance must be sought and when each person can carry on without it. One study shows that feeling like we can make some autonomous decisions can increase motivation and engagement by up to five times. Now that’s an outcome worth delivering.


Relatedness will be threatened if you don’t make regular contact with people and if you don’t create opportunities for social interaction between the team – even if it’s remote and virtual. You can still create the opportunity for more fun, non-work-related interaction. The negative side of RELATEDNESS is feeling excluded. Leaders can create a sense of exclusion without even knowing it. If one of the team hears that the leader has been communicating directly with some colleagues but hasn’t done so with them, they will feel excluded. So, making the effort to be in touch will pay dividends in terms of staff morale and productivity.

My advice is to do this by phone or a video platform like Zoom. That’s because if you rely on text-based communication 93% of the message is lost to the recipient. In stressful situations like the pandemic, it’s vital that the whole message is conveyed so you can be sure you created the right reaction.


STATUS like RELATEDNESS will be threatened if you appear to give some people more attention than others. If you carry out an all-hands update and some people or teams get mentioned while others don’t you will cause a negative reaction. It’s essential to think about what you are going to say to make sure it doesn’t leave some people with the need for STATUS threatened.


Neuroscientists tell us that the FAIRNESS feeling is controlled by the same part of the brain that is related to feeling pain. So, feeling unfairly treated really does hurt. In this context, I’m not talking about seriously unfair treatment but small things that trigger a sense of unfairness. For example, to keep things as normal as possible, a leader may run 121 sessions over Zoom. If three out of four people in a team have this virtual 121 but the fourth doesn’t, it will trigger a sense of unfairness as well as threaten STATUS and RELATEDNESS.

So, think about SCARF before you act – and good thing will happen in a very tough situation

In difficult scenarios like this, task-based leaders tend to take action and do what they think is sensible. But if the approach does not take account of SCARF – even rational and sensible decisions can backfire.

The good news is that if you satisfy the five needs of SCARF you will emerge from the challenges of the pandemic a stronger team. You will also have earned the trust and respect of your team.

In fact, if you trigger the reward reactions that following SCARF will trigger your team will automatically be open to engaging with you. One science paper describes this as follows: ‘Engagement is a state of being willing to do difficult things, to take risks, to think deeply about issues and develop new solutions.’ The reward response is also closely linked to positive emotions, such as: interest, happiness, joy and desire.

Last Friday it was my client’s birthday and his team surprised him with an all-hands video call to wish him happy birthday. It genuinely made his day. It satisfied his need for Relatedness and Status and it gave him greater Certainty that his business will emerge from the crisis stronger and more united.

It may be hard to imagine that your team could be feeling happiness and joy in the current environment but leading with the help of SCARF makes that possible.

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