TOM #14: How to get what you need

Posted on: September 11, 2022

This week I'm sharing one of my favorite brain-based tools that builds on TOM Issue #13, which was about the disappointment many of us feel when our businesses don’t bring us as much joy or satisfaction as we anticipated. The likely culprit behind that disappointment is not knowing or getting what we need.

There's so much good stuff to share. Rather than split it across two issues (which would take a month), I've packed it all in this one. If you're crunched for time, Part 1 will be enough to make you better understand your needs. But it's worth making time for Part 2, cuz it'll help make you dangerously good leader. 🧨😎

Part 1 introduces a powerful tool for assessing yours and your team members' needs.

Part 2 provides examples of how these needs work and offers prompts that will help you identify where you’re being fed and where you’re being starved of what you need as well as how to lead more powerfully using what you've learned about these needs.

Part 1: How to know what you need

The tool that will help you learn what you need is called the SCARF model. It stems from the world of social neuroscience, which includes research into the biological foundations for human relational behavior (things like emotional regulation, empathy, persuasion, and pursuing goals). 

Social neuroscience research has identified that:

  1. Much of human social behavior is motivated by two drivers: minimizing threat and maximizing reward (the approach-avoid response)
  2. Some of the brain networks used to manage these social drivers are the same as the ones used to manage physical survival needs.

In other words, your brain treats social needs in a similar way that it treats your need for food, water, and shelter. 

And there’s a direct relationship between the intensity of the driver and the intensity of the survival brain networks (i.e. more intense threat or reward = more intense activation).

The SCARF Model

The SCARF model was developed by Dr. David Rock who coined the term “neuroleadership” and co-founded the Neuroleadership Institute which provides leadership development consultation to 30% of the Fortune 100. The model is built upon research-validated drivers which activate these approach-or-avoid responses in social situations. Basically, whenever 2 or more people are interacting. At work. At school. At home. At the grocery store. Anywhere.

These drivers are:

  • Status - a measure of your relative importance to others
  • Certainty - how capably you can predict the future 
  • Autonomy - how much control you have over what happens
  • Relatedness - how safe you feel with others
  • Fairness - your perception of justice in exchanges between people

Everyone is affected by these five factors to different degrees via their brain’s “primary reward” or “primary threat” circuitry (and associated networks). The exact criteria that constitutes a threat or reward for someone is unique to that individual based on their life experience and conditioning…but the activated pathways that are used to process and respond to these stimuli are similar across humans.

What does this mean?

Based on this research, a perceived threat to status activates similar brain networks as a threat to life. 

Let that soak in.

A threat to your status (or other social driver) is neurologically similar to a threat to your life.

No wonder it feels so stressful!

Similarly, a perceived boost in fairness will activate the same reward circuitry that would fire if you received money (in modern life money buys you food, water, and shelter). 

Knowing how these drivers work for you allows you to get your needs met by consciously managing inputs to your brain’s social threat and reward mechanisms. 

(You can also do the same for members of your team (and family) once you know what their drivers are. Talk about a powerful tool for being a better leader and a better human to be around!)

Why does this matter?

A brain that is threatened diverts resources (oxygen, glucose) from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. The more it’s threatened, the more resources are diverted.

In other words, a threatened brain struggles to think creatively and to solve complex problems. It tends to generalize more, shrink from opportunities, and err on the “safe side”. And the more threatened it is, the more it is hampered by these cognitive degradations.

Research also shows that when the amygdala is activated by (real or perceived) threats, people become more likely to react defensively. 

For example, a smile is a social signal that can activate reward pathways. The significance of a smile is boosted when it comes from the boss, due to the boss’ status. So if you typically smile at your staff when you see them and one day you don’t, some of their brains might interpret the missing smile as a threat—and struggle to think clearly, take risks, or be calm in other social situations like interacting with customers.

(It bears noting that this type of situation plays out in all social interactions, not just at work. You’ll benefit from bringing this tool and the related awareness it affords to your home life, too. Heck, it’s helpful anytime you encounter other people, whether you know them or not!)

Get answers now

You likely have a hypothesis about your neurologically-wired social needs, but I recommend you take 5 minutes to complete the free assessment now to know for sure.

Better to complete the assessment before learning any more about it.

Your results will still be legit if you skip ahead, but I don’t want you doubting the validity of your assessment results and abandoning the potential benefits of learning about how these psychological drivers work for you.

Part 2: How to get your needs met

If you take one thing away from today’s issue, it’s that social needs are survival needs. 

It’s imperative that you get your psychological needs met in order to be the most resourced, capable version of yourself.

Identifying and resolving sources of (potential) dissatisfaction and disappointment in your work and life can help you lead a healthier and longer life. No exaggeration.

If your relationships and interactions with other people are threatening, your system is experiencing the neurochemistry of life threatening circumstances. These elevated stress hormones can lead to chronic diseases in the heart, brain and other organs.

If your relationships and social interactions fail to be rewarding or satisfying, your system is experiencing the neurochemistry of disappointment and low motivation. Chronically deficient dopamine levels can lead to depression, restless leg syndrome, and other conditions.

How does SCARF work for you?

Let’s dig into your results and evaluate how you can improve your day-to-day experiences and performance.

⏰ If you're short on time right now, answer the next 3 questions about your top driver only...and 🗓 schedule when you'll evaluate how things are going for your other four.

Considering your SCARF Assessment results…

  • What insight(s) do these results offer you about yourself and your needs?
  • Considering the 5 needs individually, how is each being met or satisfied? How is each being neglected or compromised?
  • What do you want/need in each of these facets of your experience (or, what would bring things into alignment with what you want/need)?
  • What one action would you like to commit to taking this week? Be specific. Schedule it, if applicable.

How social needs work at work

It is often easier to understand how these social drivers work when we consider concrete examples, so let’s do that. And let’s also consider how you can modulate the way you show up at work. What follows are some examples and suggestions. 


Status is about relative importance and some research indicates that it is the most significant determinant of longevity and health, even when controlling for education and income! Status is in play in every conversation between humans—even peers. Mental computations of who has more status are made using the brain circuitry that’s used for processing numbers.

Ways to reduce threats to status

  • For you—set boundaries. For example:
    • Specify who has the authority to do what, so you’re confident that decisions you want to bottomline are brought to you rather than acted upon without approval.
    • Identify when/how you’d like to be communicated with about urgent or sensitive issues, so you don’t feel caught off guard or exposed.
    • Have more in your life than just one project (or just work) to avoid the risk that things not going well on that project (or at work, in general) will destroy your sense of credibility throughout your life. Work and life needn’t be separate—it’s simply that if there’s only work and no life, you’re quite vulnerable to status threats.
  • For your staff—give specific, constructive feedback regularly and let them speak first. For example:
    • Ask them to share their feedback (and listen!), so your staff members know that you respect their ideas and perspective
    • Provide feedback often and at predictable times, so people can anticipate when you’ll be letting them know what works and doesn’t work regularly rather than dreading their annual review. 
    • Ask what they’re intending to do on a project or task (and listen!) before giving advice or instructions.

Ways to increase status rewards

  • For you—keep score and represent your company and/or ideas in public.
    • Create a dashboard of metrics and/or habit tracker related to the goals you’re working toward. When we have proof that we’re winning, our sense of status gets a boost. The more significant the thing that we’re winning at, the more of a boost to status/sense of vitality.
    • Be a podcast guest. Submit articles for publication in your industry’s trade magazine. Present at a networking group’s upcoming luncheon. Contribute to conversations on social media platforms that are significant to your customers and peers.
  • For your staff—acknowledge, appreciate and reward them. For example:
    • Let them know that they’re winning and how. (Be sure to do so in a way that feels good to them–if you’re unsure, ask. For some people, being praised in an all hands meeting feels amazing. For others, they’ll intentionally do mediocre work to avoid having everyone’s eyes on them.)
    • When appropriate and possible, appoint someone to represent you and/or the company at a meeting or event.


Among the most precarious things about how our brains work is its love for certainty. [Refer to TOM Issue #7 to be reminded about the survival value of certainty and how to avoid certainty-related mind traps.]

As a leader, you inevitably initiate change. You are also responsible for leading your company's response to the change that's imposed on it.

Change is an inherently uncertain process. Any effort you invest in boosting certainty and reducing uncertainty for you and your team will be worth it. Even if things don’t go as planned, y’all will feel better as you work through the change process.

Ways to reduce uncertainty

  • For you—be clear about what you do want, rather than what you don’t want [refer to TOM Issue #5: How to get clarity].
    • Focus your attention on what you would like to have happen, rather than what you want to avoid. This is really useful for your brain, because it will notice things that are related to what you want rather than scan for all the things related to what you don’t want and freak out about them.
  • For your staff—set clear expectations. 
    • Clarify what you’re relying on them to deliver. This is unbelievably helpful to their brains.
    • Break complex projects down into smaller chunks. Enlist them in this process.

Ways to increase certainty

  • For you—Intentionally create predictability that feels good to you in some part(s) of your day, every day.
  • For your staff—Set clear expectations.


Autonomy is the perception of exerting control over your environment. It’s both a function of your reality and your mindset. You can increase your sense of agency in any situation by how you perceive it, even if nothing in your external reality changes. (If you’ve worked with a good coach, you know what I’m talking about!)

Ways to reduce threats to and increase rewards of autonomy

  • For you—Take stock of what is consuming your time, energy, and attention and make changes. The moment you become aware of something stealing one or more of these resources, some of your agency that you knowingly or unknowingly forfeited to that thing is restored. Awareness initiates a shift in the power dynamic between you and the thief, and lets you assert control [check out TOM Issue #6: Get your energy back].
  • For your staff—Working in a team necessitates the reduction of some autonomy for everyone involved. Counteract the loss of control by increasing their sense of status, certainty and relatedness, and create options for people like allowing them to choose which days or shifts they work or choose in which order they complete tasks. 


Relatedness is a measure of belonging. Of being “in” or “out” of the group. Information from people perceived as “like us” are processed using similar circuits for thinking your own thoughts. Info and ideas from people who we don’t perceive as part of our group are processed differently, and less easily accepted or approved.

Relatedness correlates with trust. When we experience more relatedness with someone, we feel more comfortable trusting them. When we feel less, we feel less trust and more vulnerable and lonely.

Our brains register anyone new to us as “foe”. People who come from different cultures than our own are also assigned “foe”. Simply working together does not diminish this “foe” response. To reclassify them as “friend” requires experiencing “foes” as real, individual humans.

Ways to reduce threats to and increase rewards of relatedness

  • For you:
    • Intentionally seek out opportunities to socially connect with your team members, customers, vendors, colleagues, etc.
    • Especially if you’re a solopreneur, create or join a circle or network of your peers.
  • For your staff:
    • Create safe opportunities for this kind of “watercooler” social connecting—with your team members and any other people that are part of their work experience. 
    • Company swag is a great way to provide tangible evidence of belonging.


The most effective tools for decreasing the sense of unfairness in the workplace are transparency, communication, and participation. Reflect on the complaints you’ve had as an employee or subordinate. Remember when the rules were enforced or the workload was assigned differently for different people? Remember when the standards were relaxed for some of your peers? Remember when you were mistreated or when you were kept in the dark?

Ways to reduce threats to and increase rewards of fairness

  • For you: Treat yourself as well as you treat others.
  • For your staff: Establish and uphold standards & live your company values. Here are some examples:
    • Start and end meetings on time.
    • When you cut everyone loose early one day, make sure everyone was able to get those hours off (someone may have had meetings they couldn’t cancel or some other obligation).
    • Anticipate customer and staff questions and answer them as soon as possible, preferably before they’re asked, and via a channel they all have access to and know to use.

🤔 SELF-COACHING QUESTION: What complaints do you, your staff, and other stakeholders have regarding fairness in your business?

How to lead with SCARF in mind

None of this is rocket science, but it’s incredibly powerful to lead with SCARF in mind. All. The. Time.

For example, micromanagement is psychological kryptonite. It’s useful to know the factors that are more important to the person(s) you’re delegating to, so you can optimize those. But you can standardize the way you delegate to ensure all SCARF factors are addressed. 

  • Status: Delegate the authority needed to get it done. For example, it sucks for the person to go to IT to ask for access to the related files and wait for the IT person to check with you. As part of delegating, send an email to IT and carbon copy the person you've delegated to on the email.
  • Certainty: Clearly define what the task is, what constitutes it being done well and on time, and provide the training/resources necessary to do it.
  • Autonomy: Delegate control (with clear boundaries, as appropriate) so the person has some level of freedom.
  • Relatedness: Ask open-ended questions of the person to understand how they feel about this assignment and what about it is important to them. Share your answers, too. This builds connection between the two of you beyond the functional details of the work.
  • Fairness: Be consistent in how you delegate and provide feedback. And when/how/from whom you ask for feedback on how well you're delegating.

🤔 Which SCARF factors do you tend to forget? (They’re likely the ones that are lower on your SCARF assessment.)

How to mitigate symptoms of imposter syndrome

I think the SCARF Model helps describe components of imposter syndrome, which I consider a social stressor. I mean, how could we experience imposter syndrome if we had no concern for belonging? I think the two SCARF factors most involved in imposter syndrome are status (aka power derived from credibility) and relatedness (aka belonging determined by credibility), but all factors are related. 

If you find that imposter syndrome is messing with your head, you may find that taking actions that boost the rewards and/or reduce the threats associated with status and relatedness will get you feeling better. Even if those actions aren’t directly related to what’s got you doubting yourself. 

For example, when I am hesitating to write a TOM issue because I’m doubting my credibility to write about the topic, I will create a win for myself that affirms I’m smart. Not necessarily smart about the TOM topic—any boost to my status drive helps. I find that doing something I know I’m 100% competent at doing works well. 

In a pinch, I can read a post that I published before that was a bit out of my comfort zone that was well received. (This works for me, but it’s possibly because my drive for certainty is kinda low. I don’t worry that this next post won’t work well like the previous one did.)

Another option is to call one of my trusted colleagues for a pep talk. They will remind me of my competence and at the same time, my brain will experience a relatedness reward. Win-win!

I encourage you to keep learning about your needs and to resource yourself as well as you do your business and team. Everyone does better when you're getting what you need.

I'm so interested in what you're learning about yourself and how TOM can support you in building a better brain, a better business, and a better life.

Please let me know if (and how) this issue was useful for you. 

Here’s to building better, together!

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