Max Smith, co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship, shares a tool for diagnosing and supporting good group health.
If you’re a community organiser or campaigner your life probably revolves around collective action and working with groups. Connecting, learning, and sharing are some of the key ingredients of social change. But working with groups can also be emotionally and psychologically challenging. So how do we navigate these challenges to effective group work? Taya Seidler introduced me to a framework for diagnosing and supporting good group health when I was participating in the Community Organising Fellowship in 2016. It’s something I now share with every group I work with.
The SCARF Model was developed by David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, as a tool for supporting people who work with people (like literally everyone).
It’s a prompt for us to reflect on the impact our actions and behaviours (conscious and unconscious) can have on the people we work with. This reflection and understanding then enables us to make choices that have a positive impact and lay the foundations for healthy and effective group culture, creating intentional spaces for people to think, feel, and work at their best.
The other thing that I like about the tool is that it is based in neuroscience – satisfying the inner nerd in understanding deeper psychological insights about the mechanics of our brains and how they inform social relations.
The SCARF Model identifies five key areas that affect how our brain works in social situations and outlines them like a beautiful acrostic poem:
These 5 areas represent the social needs our brain considers essential for safety and survival. When any of these 5 needs unattended to, or not met, it sets off a threat response in our brain. When the needs are well-attended to, our brain experiences a reward response. I like this response better than the other one.
Threat or Reward?
Our brain is always trying to minimise perceived threats and maximise reward. It is somewhat of a zero-sum game. Apparently, there’s no in-between bit; we either perceive our surroundings and social interactions as threatening or rewarding. Unfortunately, our brains are way more sensitive to threats. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism.
For those of us working with people and attempting to facilitate healthy groups, it’s important for us to understand these psychological responses and their impact.
When our brain perceives a threat to one of our social needs, it triggers a physiological response. Blood is redistributed from our brain to other parts of the body like our hands and legs, so we can fight or flight. We can also experience less-than-ideal emotions such as defensiveness, blame, and insecurity.
Alternatively, when our social needs are met, we experience rewards that make us feel good. Because we feel safe and secure, we are better able to apply ourselves to the work, be collaborative and vulnerable, create and make decisions.
Ergo, this diagram:
When our social needs are met, we have a better experience of groupness and do our best work. When our social needs are not met, neither is our potential.
The 5 Social Needs
By understanding and planning for these social needs, we can make our shared experience of groups the best possible. We can also practice diagnosing and responding to needs as they arise. When we talk about the SCARF Model on the Community Organising Fellowship, we typically engage in a ‘gallery exercise’, where people can stop to look at a visual representation of each social need, reflect on what drives threats, and generate ideas for what can be done to move us away from threat towards reward. A useful way to think about it is:
When did I encounter someone who wasn’t performing well in a group? Is it possible that one of their social needs was not being met? If so, which one? What can I do in future to move them away from this threat response and towards reward?
Status is about how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. We can feel our status is threatened when we are not recognised for our contribution to a group, or when we interact with others perceived as possessing more experience, power, and privilege. People unconsciously exercise power and privilege, and compete for status in groups all the time. This emphasises the importance of personal reflection about our own power and privilege and how it affects people, as well as norms and principles for how to deal with issues of power and privilege in a group. Cultivating our own sense of acceptance and vulnerability can also be useful in reducing the threat posed by this social need.
Uncertainty is a constant threat for the brain, which finds reward and comfort in predictability. For community organisers, leadership is all about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty (Marshall Ganz). So we need to learn how to become less threatened by uncertainty.
People are always uncertain before trying something new or making a decision with limited time and information. We need to be able to let go of perfectionism, urgency, and be more willing to try things and make mistakes. After all, new things become less stressful after you’ve tried them. Sharing stories of similar past experiences are also helpful at lowering the threat of uncertainty. Other things that build certainty in a group: clear agendas with timings for each section/item, expectation setting, resources shared before meetings or events, timelines with dates in calendars.
Autonomy is about agency, choice and control. It is related to certainty, as a lack of control often begets more uncertainty. When we have choice, the capacity to make decisions, and the resources to act on them, the stress of this threat dissipates and is replaced with the wonderfully rewarding feeling of empowerment.
Relatedness is about social connection, which is really important to the brain. When we are in close relationships with others, we feel safer.
Our brain has a habit of sorting people into one of two categories:
Essentially, everyone is a foe until proven otherwise. This is why we must dedicate ourselves to relationship building, early and often.
Unfairness is probably one of the reasons we’re working together in the first place. We want to create a world that is more fair and just for everyone. Fairness can help feed our needs for status, certainty, and relatedness. Fairness can be cultivated by clear group norms and principles, decision-making processes where everyone gets to contribute, and creating a culture of equity as a means to address the structural unfairness that operates in society.
Group work is both a key ingredient of social change and a key challenge for our brains. As social change agents, it is critically important that we can create and cultivate healthy working environments.
The SCARF Model is a tool that can help us to reflect on the ways we unintentionally threaten and undermine our groups, and to think intentionally about how to maximise safety and reward for healthy working environments.
- What has the SCARF Model raised for you?
- Do you have any new ideas for how to meet your group’s social needs?
- How might you apply the SCARF Model in your work with people?
Get in touch with Maxwell Smith to share your reflections on this tool.
- See Working in Groups: Start Here for more tools and resources
- Find out more about the Community Organising Fellowship