Improving Employee Engagement Using Neuroleadership Concepts

Workers operate in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, or VUCA to borrow from the military. To be effective, they need to learn how to respond to and operate successfully in this VUCA world. By utilizing the neuroleadership SCARF model, employers can foster a more engaged workforce and create a more successful workplace.

Introduced by Dr. David Rock in 2008, the term neuroleadership refers to the harnessing of neuroscience to develop adaptive, resilient, inclusive leaders. One of the enduring aspects of neuroleadership is Rock’s SCARF model which describes the importance of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness that humans rely on to feel safe, and therefor engaged.

You can see how these domains line up nicely as a conceptual balm for VUCA. We instinctively move towards perceived rewards, and away from perceived threats. In this model, feeling important, prepared, in control, connected, and justly dealt with is rewarding.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity make work difficult, whether the cause is increasing competition, pace of life, and technical advancements, dwindling or delayed resources, famine, war zones, climate change, cyberattacks, civil unrest, or global pandemic.

According to a recent Gallup poll, VUCA contributes to 85% of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work, accounting for $7 trillion in lost productivity.

Our brains are designed for one primary purpose–to survive.

The human brain continues to draw little distinction between social threats and danger involving basic physical security (food, water, shelter, and safety from assault or being killed). After all, to be expelled from a community or have one’s name or reputation sullied has meant certain death in the past (and still does in some parts of the world).

Before we examine how companies and individuals can use SCARF to address employee safety needs, let’s review why threat and reward responses are so integral to functioning in the workplace.

When a threat is detected, common responses typically involve the following:

  • Blood flow (hence oxygen) is directed away from the brain to the muscles in the extremities so the body can mobilize for protection or escape.
  • The corrosive stress hormone cortisol is pumped through the body, contributing to insomnia, digestive problems, memory and concentration issues.
  • Activation of the cortical portion of the brain (where executive thought occurs) shifts to the limbic portion of the brain (the brain’s emotional center).
  • The brain may experience a constriction of time to the here and now.
  • The brain may limit its focus to one of self-interest at the exclusion of considering others (at least temporarily).
  • The body and brain may begin to break down if these physiological and psychological responses become customary with repeated, protracted exposure to stressors.
  • The result for employees and employers can include burnout, disability (extraordinarily costly from a monetary and societal perspective), workplace injury, retention problems, and reduced capacity to create, innovate, persuade, attend, solve problems, and function as a team.

When the reward system is activated, however, you can essentially reverse the process above:

  • Blood flow (and oxygen) is directed toward the brain as well as muscles in the body (if that is part of the nature of the given job).
  • The pleasure hormones dopamine and bonding hormone oxytocin are more likely to be released.
  • Cortical and limbic balance is possible.
  • We can be present moment focused with an ability to plan and consider the future.
  • We can balance enlightened self interest with concern for others.
  • We can better endure stress, and build resilience.

Applying the SCARF Model

SCARF offers a scientifically based tool for helping employers improve the lives of their employees, while helping their bottom line. Safety is rewarding. It enriches human capital and profit.

Here are some ideas of how SCARF can be applied in the workplace:


(Our perceived importance in relation to others.)

  • Provide specific, frequent, ongoing feedback. Specific feedback is viewed as more effective because of the sincerity it demonstrates. For instance, saying “I really value the creativity you showed by suggesting this” feels better than “Good job.”
  • Elicit and encourage ongoing, convenient two-way communication and do your part to respond and keep the channels open.
  • Send messages of value to each member of an organization through using first names or showing equal respect for everyone (relating on a first name basis, and with a “leaders eat last” mentality).
  • Include virtual and contract/temp employees equally for a sense of unity.
  • Request and consider opinions and alternative perspectives from everyone.


(Confidence about what happens next and into the future. This is an especially important domain to counteract VUCA.)

  • Provide transparent, timely, regular information.
  • Share plans or at least dates for changes as soon and as often as possible.
  • Craft honest but tactful messages, not dodging situations involving bad or unpopular news.
  • Make expectations crystal clear, acknowledging points of ambiguity.
  • Be consistent with processes and standards.
  • Adhere and stay true to corporate values. Sometimes those are the constant, and employees indicate that lived corporate values are meaningful to them.
  • Break down complicated and involved processes into digestible steps. We eat elephants one bite at a time.


(Perceived control we have over our lives.)

  • Find ways to involve employees in decisions and power to make decisions.
  • Give choices whenever possible. But not too many choices, which can create anxiety (sometimes referred to as the “paradox of abundance”).
  • Grant employees more control over their departments.
  • Educate and train virtual employees how to maximize working from home and make sure they have the proper tools.
  • Make sure job descriptions are up to date and accurate.
  • Encourage self-assessment.
  • Avoid micromanagement.


(Connection we feel to others.)

  • Foster relationships with co-workers across departments and cultural backgrounds.
  • Encourage inclusivity and diversity including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQ+ employees, and employees with disabilities.
  • Find commonalities amongst work force.
  • Learn about workers’ lives outside of work.
  • Find ways for virtual and on-site employees to build relationships.


(Perceived reasonableness of decisions that affect us.)

  • Demonstrate transparency in how decisions are made and how performance is evaluated.
  • Create processes to identify and remedy inequities.
  • Recognize that sometimes fair does not mean equal (accommodations).
  • Offer recourse to address conflict of interest and complaints.
  • Explain why something might be or seem unfair if there’s a good reason.

Applications Beyond Staff

As we ponder SCARF, it may occur to you that the values that reduce threat and reinforce reward are the same kinds of values that are found in mission statements. The spirit and substance of SCARF behaviors and responses may also apply to customers, clients, vendors, and loved ones of employees as well.

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