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ABC-M, SCARF And Self-Esteem As A System

ABC-M, SCARF And Self-Esteem As A System

| On 15, Apr 2018

Darrell Mann

In any organization, there are people that we manage, and people who manage us. Getting the most out of the people we manage – in a nice way – is the secret of good management. And sometimes, we need a way of managing our managers. And other times, we just need to be able to manage the people on, for example, a committee outside work. One way of thinking about social interactions is to use the SCARF model, which can help to make those interactions more successful.

Unlike many other motivational theories, the SCARF model is quite modern – it was first published in 2008 by David Rock (Reference 1). SCARF is an acronym, where the letters are taken from the first letters of the words:

  • Status, which is about relative importance to others.
  • Certainty, which concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy, which provides people a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness, which is a sense of safety with others.
  • Fairness, which is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

Behind all this, is the idea that our brain will make use behave in ways that try to minimize perceived threats and maximize rewards; and that the brain reacts in the same way to social needs as to our primary needs like food and water. So, if a stimulus is associated with positive emotions or rewards, you will probably approach it. But if it is associated with negative emotions or punishments, you will perceive it as a threat and you will probably avoid it.

In many senses, the SCARF model is similar in purpose to our ABC-M model. Both are trying to look at the core ‘intangibles’ that drive human behaviour. The fact that the two models appear – on the surface at least – to be different should give rise to an opportunity to build a better model.

Since the Autonomy-Belonging-Competence-Meaning model is probably better known to readers of this ezine (see Reference 2 if not), in order to explore the similarities and differences between the two models, it’s probably appropriate to examine the SCARF model in a bit more detail. Here’s a closer look at the five domains:

  1. Status – this is our sense of worth, it’s where we fit into the hierarchy at work both socially and organizationally. Status is a significant driver of workplace behaviour. If your boss has had his status threatened, it may help you to understand his behaviour, when you find that he’s taking it out on you, if you know about this model.
  2. Certainty – clarity and certainty are important. A person’s brain uses fewer resources in familiar situations than unfamiliar ones. And working with a lack of clarity can increase a person’s stress levels and impair their ability to make effective balanced decisions.
  3. Autonomy – gives a person a sense of control over what they do. A person’s brain will process the lack of autonomy as a threat situation (and this will lead to more stress), whereas being promised more autonomy actually activates the reward system in the brain.
  4. Relatedness – we’re social animals, and we naturally form social groups and build relationships. These groups build mutual trust and form a barrier against the unknown. This leads to the production of oxytocin, which increases the positive feeling of trust and stabilizes these relationships. It helps build the team.
  5. Fairness – if a person thinks something is unfair, their brain automatically goes into defence mode. A strong response from a person that removes the unfairness can activate the reward centre of the brain.

All in all, then, there seems to be considerable common ground. Figure 1 represents our attempt to map the commonalities:

Figure 1: Mapping The ABC-M And SCARF Model Equivalences 

Autonomy offers up the most direct match between the two models: our desire to be in control appears to be obvious to all. Relatedness and Belonging also seem fairly directly linked since the two words are often used as synonyms. The gap between ‘certainty’ and ‘competence’ appears slightly greater, but it still feels like they are closely allied. For those of us more familiar with the ‘competence’ label, pairing it with ‘certainty’ seems to add a new level of richness to what we mean when we talk about our ability (or otherwise) to demonstrate to ourselves and others that we are competent at things.

Therein, the similarity between the two models appears to fall down somewhat. When forced to connect the two models, it feels like ‘status’ and ‘fairness’ both feel like subsets of the Belonging need. In that a) we all recognize that the tribes we belong to all contain some kind of hierarchy, and that we usually aspire to find our place towards the top rather than at the bottom of such hierarchies (i.e. we want others to respect us, and in some ways ‘envy’ us, but not so much that they feel a desire to throw us out of the tribe) and, b) we use ‘fairness’ as the main measure of who is and who isn’t deserving of membership of the tribe, and becomes the measure by which we all try and balance the conflict between our parallel desires for autonomy and belonging.

Finally, there seems to be nothing in the SCARF model that taps into our need for Meaning.

Which perhaps begs the question, does Meaning belong in the model? Or perhaps, the bigger question, are both of the models incomplete in some way?

If we wish to answer this kind of question, we usually need to have a think about the Law Of System Completeness. The rationale here is simple: if human beings desire ‘self esteem’ and expect to be able to achieve it, then will only be possible if a viable system exists to make it possible.

Here’s what happens when we take both the SCARF and ABC-M models and attempt to fit them into the six essential elements of the Law Of System Completeness:

Figure 2: Law Of System Completeness For  ‘Self-Esteem’ System

Although it feels like early days, it’s also fair to say that this model appears to carry a whole new level of insight into what makes us who we are. I can sense a new PanSensic tool on the horizon. Expect to hear more about this topic in the future. For the moment, we think it needs a little time to incubate.


  2. Systematic Innovation E-Zine, ‘ABC-M Landscapes’, Issue 167, February 2016.