Science has proven that not having clearly defined roles and responsibilities can have the same effect on a person as being physically threatened and will activate that area in the brain.

Neuroscience posits that “the fundamental organising principle of the brain is to minimise danger and maximise reward.” (Evian Gordon)

The SCARF model, developed by David Rock, involves five domains of human social experience.

The model is built on three central ideas:

  1. The brain treats many social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards;
  2. The capacity to make decisions, solve problems and collaborate with others is generally reduced by a threat response and increased under a reward response; and
  3. The threat response is more intense and more common, and often needs to be carefully minimised in social interactions.

SCARF stands for the five key “domains” that influence our behaviour in social situations.

  • Status – our relative importance to others.
  • Certainty – our ability to predict the future.
  • Autonomy – our sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness – how safe we feel with others.
  • Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be.

The model is based on neuroscience research that implies that these five social domains activate the same threat and reward responses in our brain that we rely on for physical survival. These five domains activate either the “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry of the brain.

One domain that directly relates to role and responsibility clarity is that of “Certainty”. When there are constantly changing goals and unclear expectations, a threat response is triggered.

In a state of threat, the prefrontal cortex – with its conscious and controlled thinking processes – is effectively shut down by the significantly stronger forces of the limbic system. The limbic system manages stress for safety and survival. Activation of the limbic system results in feelings of anxiety, fear, frustration, being out of control and negativity. The stress hormones, cortisol and noradrenaline, flood the system and have been shown to compromise performance outcomes.

When there are clear roles and expectations, a reward response is triggered. The prefrontal cortex is active and associated feelings of optimism, well-being, greater intuition and a heightened learning state result. The hormone dopamine is released – commonly referred to as the “feel-good hormone”.

Clarity is important. A person’s brain uses fewer resources in familiar situations than unfamiliar ones. Working with a lack of clarity can increase a person’s stress levels and impair their ability to make effective and balanced decisions.


Duckett, S. (2018). Managing conversations that we find challenging. Retrieved from

Eddolls, T. (2016). Managing people – The SCARF Model. Retrieved from

Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaboratingwith and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 1-9.

Rock, D. & Ringleb, A.H. (2009). Defining NeuroLeadership as afield. NeuroLeadership Journal, 2, 78-84.

Vorhauser-Smith, S. (2016). The neuroscience of performance. Retrieved from

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