The SCARF model describes five domains considered important in explaining, for a social setting, a key organising principle of the brain – minimise danger, maximise reward. Denoting status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness, SCARF brings to sharp relief the findings from social cognitive neuroscience that social needs are just as paramount as the physical.

Status can act in a subtle manner. Unsolicited advice, gentle feedback, each can be misconstrued as an attempt to belittle. Alternatively, positive feedback and encouragement takes on added meaning when delivered by someone in a position of seniority. As highlighted in a NeuroLeadership Journal article on SCARF, “everyday conversations devolve in arguments driven by a status threat”.

Whether as leaders or as peers, we can all benefit from developing a heightened state of awareness in how respectful we are of status in our social exchanges. Indeed, for a source of tutorship, an unlikely source is the screenwriting Industry. Screenwriters are acutely sensitive to how status plays out in human drama. Changes in status are what often create the dynamics that underpins the dialogue exchanges between the protagonists.

Observe carefully and you will note that each character brings a power basis residing in perhaps a social, professional, sexual, intellectual or physical superiority. Their relationships are then driven by interactions in which each leverages their particular strengths to improve their relative social standing. Revisit a favourite television series and you may well be surprised on how such power struggles themes are steadfastly applied.

The medium of film or television can become a source of controlled SCARF experiments. It affords us the opportunity to act as a critical detached observer of status interchanges so that we can then reflect back on our own behaviour. Lessons learned could then help break what may be harmful social habits that may result in threatening status responses from colleagues.

To paraphrase the statistician George E. P. Box, all models are wrong but some models are useful. While in time, research may surface other factors considered primary in motivating people collaborating in groups, SCARF is an accessible tool practical for today.

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