Using SCARF for Employee Engagement Surveys

SCARF | NeuroLeadership Institute | Clarifications Coaching LLC

Leadership roles encounter a variety of problems in the organizations within which they work. Often, levels of employee morale, engagement, and motivation can be a prominent issue. One way leaders can attempt to address this issue is through an understanding of the SCARF framework and how employees are either triggered or encouraged by the way their leaders (and coworkers) communicate with them. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

Every individual regards these concepts with varying levels of significance. One employee may find Status (position, title, etc.) more important, for example, than Relatedness (feeling connected to those around you, etc.). If a leader wanted to motivate this person to do more in their position, then it might be better to appeal to their sense of Status by upgrading their job title instead of hosting an office-wide Happy Hour.

I first came across the SCARF framework when I read David Rock’s titular article in June 2017. I had been making my way through the Handbook of NeuroLeadership (2013) and found many of the concepts contained within to be useful and interesting, but the SCARF framework proved to be especially applicable to my then current position as Development Director for a small business focused on pet care. 

The primary problem that the business was facing was difficulty in being able to hold onto long term employees. The majority of the staff were minimum wage, hourly workers that worked remotely with most communications happening via email, text, or the occasional phone call. This contributed to a semi-regular cycle of losing about one employee per month which sent the owners scrambling to cover the exiting individual’s duties and rush through hiring someone new.

Therefore, one of my primary duties as Development Director was to discover and implement ways to not only streamline and systemize hiring initiatives but also increase employee retention. Since I had come across SCARF in addition to other similar frameworks (like TERA from Michael Stanier), I thought it was an excellent opportunity to do an Employee Engagement Survey with SCARF-focused questions in order to judge where management was falling short.

I designed the survey with 10 questions based off of Gallup’s Q12 Assessment. Five questions were measuring Status, one for Certainty, one for Autonomy, two for Relatedness, and one for Fairness. They required Yes/No answers with an additional comment field to answer “Why or Why Not?”

The questions were as follows:

Status
(Q3) In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
(Q6) At work, do your opinions seem to count?
(Q7) Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
(Q9) In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?
(Q10) In the last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Certainty
(Q1) Do you know what is expected of you at work?

Autonomy
(Q2) Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?

Relatedness
(Q4) Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
(Q5) Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

Fairness
(Q8) Are your fellow employees committed to doing quality work?

At the end of the survey period, there were 10 out of 16 employees who had completed the survey. The questions for Certainty, Relatedness, and Fairness all scored at 100%. The questions for Status scored at 84% and Autonomy at 90%. From these responses, it was therefore clear that management needed to work on reducing threats to and increase rewards for their staff’s sense of Status and Autonomy.

In order to reduce Status threats, I recommended that management allow staff members to give themselves feedback on their own work performance. Giving feedback, especially for performance reviews, often generates Status threats and is ineffective at stimulating behavior change. To increase Status rewards, I recommended that management place more emphasis on not only offering learning and improvement opportunities but to pay attention to consequent individual improvement. Public acknowledgement, especially, can go a long way in increasing an individual’s sense of Status so I also suggested that the managers take the time to congratulate staff members at group staff meetings whenever they received positive feedback from clients.

Autonomy proved to be a more difficult issue to address, however. The prevailing management style of the business was very prescriptive in a way that employees were expected to follow specific protocol when carrying out their job duties. Employees were required to send client communications within a pre-defined time frame for each appointment and follow a precise series of instructions when handling and interacting with the clients’ pets. There was very little room for employees to exercise their creativity or Autonomy in their day to day duties.

With that said, potential Autonomy threats can be counteracted by increases in Status, Certainty, and Relatedness. Certainty was certainly strong within the company due to the prescriptive protocols, but the staff’s sense of Status (covered above) and Relatedness (due to the remote working arrangements) were also liable to be threatened. Even so, I recommended that management attempt to create policies within which staff members could make point-of-need decisions without consultation with or intervention by leaders.

Of these recommendations, management decided to start acknowledging the achievements of staff members by reviewing positive feedback from clients at group staff meetings. I, personally, also started conducting self-led performance reviews for subordinates, framing the review questions myself but letting them answer themselves. Management also starting offering learning workshops to help staff members develop or improve certain job skills.

Unfortunately, these initiatives did not get far off the ground. Management discontinued group staff meetings for the last couple months of the year due to scheduling issues and, furthermore, stopped offering public acknowledgements of staff achievements. While they did continue offering learning workshops, they also decreased the frequency of them to once per quarter.

We agreed to conduct a follow up Employee Engagement Survey every six months to track how well management was successfully addressing their areas for improvement. I created the new survey at the agreed upon time, but wanted to add some more dimension to the potential employee feedback so I decided to make the answers scalable instead of a simple Yes/No. Staff members were instructed to choose their answers on a scale of one to five for each question. For example:

(Q1) Do you know what is expected of you at work?

  1. I never know what is expected of me at work
  2. I usually don’t know what is expected of me at work
  3. I sometimes know what is expected of me at work
  4. I usually know what is expected of me at work
  5. I always know what is expected of me at work


Consequently, the responses that we received for the second survey were more nuanced and offered a more comprehensive understanding of the staff members’ sense of the SCARF dimensions. We had received five responses as of the point at which I left the company. Status was still the primary dimension identified for improvement by staff, with Relatedness and Autonomy tied for second. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the final results of the second survey or any consequent employee retention initiatives they may have implemented as a result.

Are you interested in seeing where you stand on the SCARF spectrum? Take your SCARF Assessment here!

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