What can I do as a leader?

The pandemic turns many things upside down and triggers great uncertainty among society. Teams need to be managed virtually from one day to the other. Employees relocate their workplaces to their own living rooms and work for weeks at a physical distance from colleagues. There is a need to quickly adapt to new ways of working within many companies. While some people see the changes associated with the corona crisis as a great learning opportunity, others freeze in the face of the changes and may even be unable to cope with their day-to-day work. As many people perceive this situation as psychologically highly stressful, it is particularly important for companies to treat their most important resource with care – their employees. Often, we are asked by managers how they can best act as “virtual leaders”. In this context, we find the SCARF model, which was first published by David Rock in 2008 in his paper »SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others«, particularly helpful. The model was developed based on results from studying the brain in the field of social, cognitive, and affective neuroscience, which explores the biological foundations of how humans relate to each other and to themselves. Rock defines five dimensions that affect the reward and threat center in our brain (see graphic). SCARF stands as an acronym for the five basic human social needs “Status”, “Certainty”, “Autonomy”, “Relatedness ” and “Fairness”. Emotional well-being and the ability to perform are directly related to the appreciation or depreciation of the dimensions.

So, how can SCARF be applied to the Covid crisis?

Social needs of people based on the SCARF model. Dimensions: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.


STATUS: I am valuable!

Status is about our relative position and relationship to others. Over time, one develops a position within the team or the organization and wants to be perceived as valuable. The corona crisis shakes up familiar patterns and status images and makes us rethink structures. Status symbols in office spaces are no longer visible. Also, who is sitting next to whom and on which floor of the office building is no longer relevant in video calls. Behind the screen, appearances such as body size and clothing seem to be less important and effective.

The uncertainty often lies in the fact that people feel cut off from communication and can no longer assess whether their own role is still important. Despite physical distance, it is important to make individual team roles coherently visible in the virtual space and to provide feedback and recognition to team members. Regular exchange and updates in one-on-one meetings as well as with the whole team are recommended to strengthen trust and transparency and to keep the level of information high within the team.

CERTAINTY: I know where I am!

The human brain always tries to predict the near future through pattern-recognition. Uncertainty is perceived as unpleasant and ties up attention and energy. Corona sparks all kinds of uncertainty in the workplace: first and foremost, there is the fear of losing one’s job, receiving lower income, worries about the future of one’s own company, and even uncertainty about tasks and how they are to be performed virtually. In this context, it is important to ensure security especially in those areas that we can control. Clear, reliable communication structures and regular meetings are one way to reduce uncertainty. Changes that affect the employee´s role, working relationship or workload should be planned jointly or communicated to employees with an appropriate lead time. It is helpful to create transparency and explain actions precisely. Regular, honest exchange about concerns or potential risks are basic prerequisites to ensure safety at the workplace and to promote employee productivity and motivation.

AUTONOMY: I have a choice!

Autonomy refers to the fundamental human need of being able to influence and shape their own environment. Restrictions to decision-making autonomy are normally perceived as a threat. Especially at the beginning of Corona, it was necessary for many companies to take quick decisions in small circles. Freedom of action and personal autonomy were sometimes experienced as severely restricted.

In contrast, working from home certainly goes hand in hand with increased autonomy in terms of personal time management. This new level of autonomy and accountability can be both satisfying and overwhelming. It is therefore necessary to clearly define tasks, expectations, and new ways of working together with employees. A culture that leaves space for discussion and trust facilitates transparent exchange which is essential for successful collaboration.


Belonging to a “tribe”, to be safe and to take a role in society is one of the basic needs of humans. This also results in rapid categorization into friend or foe to ensure one’s own survival and to minimize threats. The feeling of togetherness within teams or entire organizations is severely impaired by the lack of physical contact. To counteract this, it is important to create as much personal connection in the virtual space as possible. Throughout the last months, video calls have become the new normal as means of communication in many businesses. It is therefore important to at least turn on the video function during calls, to be able to see each other and interpret facial expressions. Organizing creative, new forms of virtual meetings can give employees a sense of connection and team spirit. Special attention should be paid to the issue of trust – within the team as well as between the team and leaders. The higher the level of trust, the greater the willingness to share information with each other and to get involved in uncertain situations. Trust can be strengthened by securing a safe space for transparency, feedback, and authenticity even when collaborating virtually.

FAIRNESS: I am valued and treated fairly!

Fair treatment stimulates an intrinsic sense of reward – unfair treatment generates a strong threat response. “Why me?” is a question that has often been asked since the beginning of the pandemic. Some workplaces, regions, businesses, and industries are more affected by the corona crisis than others, and individual perceptions of justice are often violated. The impact on individual destinies can be significant. It is necessary to pay sufficient attention to the introduction of new measures and regulations in companies so that they can be supported by everyone. Focus should be put on a coherent and transparent overall concept that also considers the situation of individuals. Transparency is central to the perception of fairness. If information is shared in a timely manner, employee motivation and commitment can be kept high even in difficult situations.

Concluding thoughts – outlook for the future

Keeping the five dimensions of the SCARF model and the levers associated with those dimensions in mind helps to better understand the reactions of employees in challenging situations and makes it easier to act accordingly. The goal is to strengthen employees in their actions and to create a working atmosphere that provides security and is characterized by mutual appreciation. It is important to grant each other room to maneuver and to ignite a sense of belonging. Threats should be avoided to increase emotional acceptance of change. It is obvious that situations are perceived differently by individuals and that their evaluation is always subjective. To achieve the greatest possible success together it is important to develop a better understanding for the impact change can have on others and the role our brain plays in this context.

Use SCARF dimensions

  • Express recognition
  • Share positive feedback
  • Create plans
  • Communicate plans
  • Ensure transparency
  • Express clear expectations
  • Agree on common rules
  • Establish trust
  • Organize virtual meetings
  • Establish relatedness and trust
  • Ensure transparency
  • Offer participation


Book recommendation “YOUR BRAIN AT WORK, REVISED AND UPDATED: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” by David Rock (Harper Business, 2020).


Image source: melitas, www.123rf.com