Analyst’s corner
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Analyst’s corner

“That last comment hit a nerve with my stakeholder. Why?”

How can neuroscience help project professionals understand stakeholders better?

Source: ollyy from (under licence)

David Rock developed the SCARF model in 2008 ¹. SCARF leverages neuroscience to call out five areas influencing human social interactions ². In business, we can view SCARF as a collaboration and influencing framework. As a project professional, SCARF can help you improve your social awareness ³. Does your role involve stakeholder management? If so, adapting your actions and communication based on social awareness is vital.

“…SCARF is a framework for understanding human social behaviour through a neuroscience lens.

It has broad applicability, prior to an interaction (predicting how people would react to certain conversation), during an interaction (helping to regulate responses to more tactical reactions) and after an interaction (explaining the root causes behind the outcome).”

- Itamar Goldminz, SCARF ⁴

Head to to play this brief video from the Neuroleadership Institute. This video introduces the five facets of the SCARF model ⁵.

Source: Neuroleadership Institute (

Understanding your stakeholders with SCARF

What are your stakeholder’s “hot buttons”?

Observe your stakeholder interactions. At what point(s) in the interactions do you or others encounter difficulty? Could certain words or approaches trigger an ‘avoid’ response in your stakeholder? Also, when does the exchange go smoothly? Have aspects of the exchange triggered an ‘approach’ response and pleased the stakeholder?

Savvy professionals know this adage well: It may not be what is said, but the way it is said.

It could also be who is saying it.

Some of my stakeholder interactions have fallen flat. Others have outright blown up in my face. And there’s usually one ingredient missing.

For whatever reason, I have switched off my situational awareness. My stakeholders had their “hot buttons” hit (dare I say repeatedly), and I wasn’t aware. Perhaps I was caught up in the content or was too attached to an outcome. Maybe my sense of logic and reasoning overpowered how my audience may perceive the message. Or diplomacy was pushed aside by a blunter, seemingly efficient mindset.

But when things work well is it due to preparation and situational awareness? This preparation includes being present during the interaction. I pay close attention to any ‘threat’ or ‘reward’ responses my stakeholder perceives.

So how can you use the SCARF model in your stakeholder interactions? Get a sense of what your stakeholder values. Is it a sense of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness?

You may need a few meetings to gain this sense. Mention your change to the stakeholder. Observe how your stakeholder responds. Pay close attention to the questions they ask, or their body language. If you see any reaction, ask what their view is (if it feels appropriate to do so). This way, you can test your observations with quick follow-up questions. In doing so, you are calibrating your understanding of your stakeholder.

You can also aim to learn answers to:

  • What aspects of your change worry them?
  • What operational challenges ‘keep them up at night’?
  • What are they most proud of in their team?

Why ask these questions? To see how they express themselves — and themes they focus on. What makes them ‘feel good’ — about your change or their team. Their answers reveal ‘threat’ responses too.

After this, have you a better understanding of your stakeholder’s ‘feel good’/’feel bad’ responses? This first step means we have found our stakeholder’s ‘hot buttons’. These ‘hot buttons’ are a way of describing the ‘feel good’/’feel bad’ response. We can now dig deeper and examine this knowledge using the SCARF model.

Source: karlyukav from (under licence)

Digging deeper into SCARF

To dig deeper, explore where in the SCARF model your stakeholder’s “hot buttons” are. SCARF provides five themes. “Hot buttons” are strong responses to any threat or reward touching on a theme. Your stakeholder may have “hot buttons” across one of many themes in the SCARF model.

This one-minute video defines SCARF. I hope it provides helpful suggestions to project and change professionals.

Source: Allan Owens

What do your stakeholder’s “hot buttons” revolve around?

Status. For example, do they focus on what your change means to their role in the pecking order? Do they ‘dress to impress’? Do they come across as dominant, or rather important? These questions may sound rather cheeky; that’s not my intention. Does your change reinforce or enhance their role in the pecking order? Sounds like your stakeholder may have status-related “hot buttons”.

Certainty. Does your stakeholder blanch when you or others mention uncertainty? Or present concepts with loose ends or unknowns? Even worse, do they react when spotting an error in your calculations? Or they have a sense that you haven’t thought through all scenarios in your planning.

Do they seem assured when you present a clear, comprehensive roadmap? And seem soothed in the face of your calm, “we’ve got this” vibe? You may be dealing with someone who has some certainty-related “hot buttons”.

Autonomy. Some stakeholders bristle at having to partner with your project team. It’s their team or operation — and territory. Your team are there to support them with a change. They may want you to provide them with the tools for them to understand, then “own” the change. Do they dominate training or support sessions? And seek only the “executive summary”?

Their “difficult” behaviour is a positive. This may be their way of absorbing necessary information to start “owning” the change. But you might even feel like you’ve stepped into a chef’s kitchen… or a lion’s den! Yes, this stakeholder prefer to work autonomously.

Relatedness. Which of your stakeholders prefer you to consult widely? Do they bristle if they feel put on the spot, especially in front of others? And do they enjoy the assurance of group consensus? This type of stakeholder might value relationships.

Other stakeholders may relish playing the advocate on behalf of their group. They may appear adversarial or sceptical when you reveal aspects of your change. Their eye for detail around equity may surprise you. They identify disadvantaged groups in your change. Use this “eye for fairness”. Involve this stakeholder in your change impact assessment!

Applying SCARF to change planning

Working hypotheses about your stakeholders

We know that certain words, phrases or change approaches can hit “hot buttons”. Or “soothe” — whether by careful planning or by accident.

Applying SCARF to stakeholder engagement reveals an important concept. Our brains may be wired to scan for threatening or rewarding messages — for one or many aspects of SCARF. The SCARF model provides five different facets. Break down what elements of your message hit “hot buttons” or “soothe”, using SCARF as the backdrop.

So here’s a tall order for project and change professionals:

How can your approach to the people side of change cover:

  • Supporting the ongoing sense of status and pecking order for status-driven stakeholders?
  • Assuring via comprehensive and concise communications and plans during times of uncertainty?
  • Empowering people with an option to act independently?
  • Being accountable for broad consultation and team consensus prevails (where appropriate)?
  • Ensuring that no stakeholder groups are unfairly disadvantaged?

You may need to influence some stakeholders more than others. Thus you may adapt your messages and approach towards aspects of the SCARF model. Your hard work will pay off. Make your life easier: align with your stakeholder’s way of thinking.


Models are often imperfect, but their simplicity and practicality are valuable. The SCARF model helps you form a working hypothesis of your stakeholders “hot buttons”. Test out how your stakeholder perceives messages through this useful lens.

We don’t know with complete certainty that the SCARF model is accurate. But SCARF can be a tool to raise your situational awareness when you are with stakeholders. This understanding makes for far better stakeholder relationships!

Your call to action

When is your next stakeholder engagement? How will you apply the SCARF model to adapt your messaging and approach to individuals in this engagement?

My book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out my online course on Change Management.


1. Rock D. SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. Neuroleadersh J. 2008;(1).

2. Gugel M. The 5 Factors that Influence Social Interactions. Published 2019. Accessed December 10, 2020.

3. Terkelsen J, Terkelsen M. Collaboration and Influencing Using the SCARF® Model . People Leaders — Published 2019. Accessed December 10, 2020.

4. Goldminz I. SCARF. OrgHacking — Published 2016. Accessed December 10, 2020.

5. SCARF Assessment Preview. Neuroleadership Institute. Accessed December 6, 2020.



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