Influencing others, influencing positively – SCARF and Appreciative Inquiry

You’re about to launch a quest for student wellbeing.  You’ve been reading up on this blog series and taking action on each of the challenges contained in each post.  Brilliant!  Now, it would behove us to think about how to influence the change that needs to come about – because, just in case you did not know it, people tend to not like change, and for very good reason.

Traditionally, change has not been a good thing for us as a species.  The unknown has often heralded ‘something bad’.  For instance, if strangers appear on the horizon, with strange shiny sharp things, when all you have is rocks, it doesn’t look good for your tribe.  If your usual sources of food aren’t available, and all that’s left is a range of mushrooms nobody’s ever eaten before – this also is not good.  In fact there’s an argument out there that really, we are the result of many years of detecting threat very well.  The caveperson who jumps and runs every time the bush rustles is more likely to survive than the person who says ‘it’s probably just the wind’ (the latter caveperson being far more likely to get eaten by the sabre-tooth tiger hiding in the bush).  Mathew White is a student wellbeing researcher and former Head of Positive Education at St Peter’s College, Adelaide – and he has identified eight reasons that student wellbeing initiatives don’t take in his academic article ‘Why won’t it Stick? Positive Psychology and Positive Education[1].  I believe that underpinning most of the eight is an underlying fear of change, and threat of the unknown.  So, given there is a lot of resistance even to perfectly good change, how can we communicate most influentially with those we need to ‘get over the line’?  Studies in neuroscience [2] (and, I would argue, common sense) have five key things we can pay attention to in our communication so that our proposed changes can be given the best chance of a good welcome, rather than being seen as a threat.  These five spell out the word SCARF: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationships, and Fairness.  (Those of you familiar with self-determination theory will notice that all elements of SDT are accounted for by SCARF, which in my opinion supersedes SDT).


Does the way you communicate about your proposed changes threaten anyone’s status?  For instance, I was seeking to get a staff wellbeing challenge off the ground a few years back in one of the schools I’ve worked with.  However, the head of physical education, who was the most active supporter of staff health at the school, kept throwing up roadblocks.  It’d go like this:

“Hey, Angela, I’d like to do a wellbeing challenge, where staff earn points for doing different activities.”  She’d kind of purse her lips and say,

“Well, we’ve already tried something like that”

“But I was thinking maybe we could try again, and keep it fun with some prizes and certificates and things?” but still no dice.

“Nahum, I just don’t think people are ready for that sort of thing.”

I went away and thought – why is Angela resisting this so much?  And then it occurred to me: through taking initiative in this area of her passion I was stealing her baby.  Her status as the expert and champion of this area was being threatened.  I tried again a few weeks later:

“Hey Angela, I have a favour to ask.  I’m wanting to start a staff wellbeing challenge, but I really want to make sure people get on board and I need a patron who people respect.  Do you mind if we call it the Angela Marton Staff Wellbeing Challenge?  And I’m picturing a couple of posters with your face, you wearing sunglasses with folded arms like Commando off Biggest Loser…”  She was in.  She also could see exactly what I was doing, (because she wasn’t stupid), but she respected that I had come to her as someone who had already been doing great work in this area, and that her work would be able to continue.  I was going to respect her baby, and not steal it from her.  The threat caused by the change was minimised.

Not every appeal to someone’s status needs to be so blatant, but it is well worth recognising that the person with whom we are dealing is a competent individual whose involvement we want to harness, and it doesn’t hurt to spell that truth out a little.   Recently a mate in a study group commented that the brownies I make and bring occasionally are delicious, and he said that “There must be a certain skill or flair to having them turn out with just the right amount of crunchiness and chewiness.”  Of course I baked him and the group a batch of brownies – without being asked.  He just needed to admire my brownie-baking, and let nature take its course.


If you have ever been in the situation of knowing that jobs at your organisation are going to be cut, but given no timeframe around what is happening when, you’ve probably experienced the discomfort of extreme uncertainty.  And you probably felt just a little bit better if a timeframe did come out – even if it was “We can’t tell you more now, but we’ll be more clear on what roles will need to change by the third of November, and will get back to you then.”  Even just a little certainty can help.

People like to know what’s coming.  If you’re ‘bringing in student wellbeing’, be as specific as you can as early as you can so that people can be prepared.  E.g. “We’re looking at student wellbeing, and have decided to focus on gratitude.  What we’re asking of every class is that by the end of first week of term every student has had an opportunity to draw a coversheet in their positive education book that shows the things in life they are most grateful for, and that four out of five days in week two that they are given five minutes just before lunch or just before home time to write down one thing they are most grateful for from today.”

You may be thinking that this is the bare minimum, and you’d be right.  The ideal would be giving unit outlines for your pastoral care programme at the same time that academic unit outlines are available the year before, so that people can plan and synergise their programmes.  Moreover, you would want these outlines / lesson plans / resources to be part of a scope and sequence from the lowest year level to the highest… But let’s not put you under pressure on this front just yet.  For now, take it from me that certainty is one more factor to take into account to ensure that what you have planned for student wellbeing actually gets done, and isn’t seen as a threat or put in the ‘too vague / too hard’ basket.

Wrapping up

The aim is to keep these blogs bite-sized, so rather than spell out the rest of the SCARF model today, hang on till the next post for the rest!

In the meantime, please have a quick muse on these questions:

  1. Name a time that someone was inviting you to get something done, but either a) they didn’t respect your competence/status, or b) they were too vague.  How did that feel?
  2. What would you have needed from them to feel more motivated to get involved?
  3. How can you ensure that your communications in quest for student wellbeing will incorporate both Status and Certainty as elements in order to be more successful/influential?

Next post in the ‘How to lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series:

‘Influencing others, influencing positively – SCARF and Appreciative Inquiry (continued).’

  1. White, Mathew A. “Why won’t it stick? Positive psychology and positive education.” Psychology of well-being1 (2016): 2.
  2. Rock, David. “SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.” NeuroLeadership Journal1 (2008): 44-52.

Nahum Kozak | Psychologist

Nahum is a Psychologist who uses the power of story, humour, and data to help improve organisations.  Nahum has a wealth of experience from school and corporate contexts – as Head of Positive Education and Senior School Counsellor (John Paul College), Corporate Coach (including experience with Griffith’s Work and Organisational Resiliency Centre) and Youth Minister (in Catholic Schools across Australia). He holds a B.A.(Psychology), M.Ed.(Educational Research: Theory and Practice), and is currently undertaking a second Masters in Organisational Psychology. He has presented at schools and conferences around Australia, and has had his research on wellbeing, social connection and sleep quality published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Nahum is passionate about building healthy, happy organisations.