Five Dangerous Triggers You Want to Avoid – The SCARF Model

 In Better Life, Communication, Relationships

I received an email from a coworker from another department.  They weren’t happy with how I was handling a situation with a customer.  I was irritated, but I politely responded back about why I was doing what I was doing. The next email from them continued to challenge my actions AND they copied my boss.  What?  I was FURIOUS!  That was uncalled for! 

Isn’t it interesting how an action that challenges our judgement and expertise can trigger such a strong response?  Now, in hindsight, I understand that my status had been threatened and my natural survival instincts had kicked in, as if I was in actual physical danger.  Watch out!

The SCARF Model

Interestingly, studies by David Rock of the Neuroleadership Institute have found there are 5 social situations that can have this type of effect.  His SCARF model highlights social interactions known to trigger the threat/reward response in our brains.  Such threat situations include:

  • – Status – Situations that challenge our social or professional standing.
  • – Certainty – Situations where we feel uncertain and feel we don’t have all the information we need.
  • A – Autonomy – Situations where we don’t feel in control and feel we don’t have choices.
  • R – Relatedness – Situations where we don’t feel a connection with the other person; they seem very different in their ideas or appearance.
  • F – Fairness – Situations where we’ve been treated unfairly or have been accused of being unfair.

Why is this important to know?  Whether it’s interactions with our colleagues, friends, or family, it’s very helpful to be aware of these triggers so we can avoid saying or doing something to set them off.  It’s also helpful to recognize our own strong responses and realize it’s our survival instincts kicking in.   We may want to pause and carefully choose an appropriate response instead of just going with our initial instinctive reaction.

Can you remember a time when you triggered one of these threat responses in someone or when you had a response?


Tina Hallis, Ph.D., is a professional speaker and founder of The Positive Edge, a company dedicated to helping individuals and organizations increase their positivity to improve the quality of people’s work lives and the quality of company cultures.

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