Stress Management Thoughts

SCARF Model in the times of Covid-19: FAIRNESS

SCARF Model; Magda Tabac; Status; Certainty; Autonomy; Relatedness; Fairness

Note: this is the sixth and last post in the series dedicated to the benefits of applying the SCARF Model to increase our wellbeing (at home and at work) in these times of Covid-19. This post approaches the fifth SCARF “button”: Fairness. The previous posts in the series are HERE (Introductory post), HERE (Status), HERE (Certainty), HERE (Autonomy) and HERE (Relatedness).

Fairness – how fair we perceive the exchanges between people to be

Fairness, or the perception of fair exchanges, is something that we are conditioned in through our experiences with others[i]. The sense of something being unfair generates a strong threat response and very intense emotions[ii]. This is why, unfair situations can drive people to behave erratically and out of character, for example, through violent demonstrations. Curiously enough, unfairness can even activate emotions like disgust and a feeling of reward when an ‘unfair other’ is punished.

It is interesting to know that feelings of unfairness are easy to trigger, but can also be mediated rather easily. This is because it is the perception of fairness that is the threat. This means that sometimes, if we make just a small change, we can have a large impact on reducing the sense of unfairness[iii].

Covid negative impact on Fairness:
  • Many people disagreed (and many still do) with the measures imposed by governments to restrict movement and the spread of Covid-19. This is happening because they perceive this as their rights being unfairly removed, making them feel that “This is not fair!”
  • Being vulnerable to other people’s actions: for example, in a shared flat, some people follow all guidelines and protect themselves, while some others don’t. If the ones who don’t care about the guidelines end up getting the virus and spreading it to all other flatmates, the first flatmates (the ones respecting the guidelines) will see this as an unfair situation.
Ideas for increasing fairness:
  • Give parents of young children more flexibility on meeting times.
  • Share details around why decisions are made and what is the thought process behind them – especially decisions impacted by Covid, such as furloughs, restructuring, work-from-home timeline, etc. When employees don’t have all the details, they start to invent alternate stories and normally, these stories will be worse than the reality.
  • When possible, allow individuals and teams to weigh in on options.
  • Be transparent on how changes affect various stakeholders so there are as few surprises as possible as to how individuals and teams are impacted.
  • Establish clear expectations in all situations: from a one-hour video meeting to an indefinite-term contract for a new hire.

A last reminder:

To conclude, when at work (and not only) and you feel threatened, agitated or anxious, try to remember the SCARF model and identify the source of your agitation.

By doing this, you will be Labelling the emotion/trigger/stimuli. Labelling calms down the emotional response system and brings your brain back “online”, so that you can think clearly how you want to approach the situation.

One other strategy involves the process of Reappraising. For example, someone attacked your idea. You felt a threat to your status and got a threat response from your brain. If you can stop the instinctual threat response and think “What was that person feeling? Was there something attacking their status? Were they feeling threatened by me?” you will have better chances to control the outcome and decide what to do.

I’d be interested in hearing your examples of how the pandemic has pushed your “Fairness button” and any ideas you have for increasing Fairness.

Thank you for reading,


PS – You can access the other articles in the series here: Status Certainty Autonomy Relatedness

[i] Rock, D. (2008) SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, Neuroleadership Journal, 1

[ii] Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007) Fairness and Cooperation are Rewarding: Evidence from Social Cognitive Neuroscience, Annals of the New york Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101

[iii] Rock, D. (2008) SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, Neuroleadership Journal, 1

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