Influencing others, influencing positively – SCARF (continued)

In this post we continue to look at the SCARF model [1] – a means of communicating with influence, and assisting you in overcoming (or reducing) the resistance to change that will be present in your context.  And there will be resistance, yes, even to a student wellbeing initiative [2].  In the last post, we looked at respecting other’s Status and need for a level of Certainty when being invited to get on board.  The remaining parts of the SCARF model are Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.


Imagine you’ve gone through a detailed analysis of needs and identified exactly the areas you want to build on in your quest for student wellbeing.  Now, you unveil your great plan and what it is each staff member needs to do.

Their response:  “Why do I have to do this?”

Hmm.  Grumbles like this are a great sign that maybe we’ve started treating the staff as if they are wayward students needing explicit direction.  Actually, scratch that – we all already know from experience that students themselves need to be given some level of voice when we want them to engage.  So in providing the exact, prescribed way forward for staff, we are actually treating them a little bit worse than the students – when in reality, a cursory examination will show that both staff and students are in the larger shared category of human.  Humans, it turns out, just don’t like being told what to do; it seems too much like a threat.  When grumbles occur, treat them as the useful diagnostic information that they are. Take the opportunity to check in with your messaging, ask “Am I offering a level of genuine autonomy here?”

We still do need to get things done, at the same time as fostering the ability to choose.  To resolve this paradox, it is often useful to bake autonomy into your processes from the start, within the parameters of the goals you’re seeking to achieve.  In other words, give the limits to work within, and allow choice within those limits.  For a simple example, “Here are two ways forward, either one could work well.  Which would you prefer?” will get a better response than “Here’s what you have to do”.

Providing meaningful autonomy in a school setting can be hard; there are so many constraints within which we all need to work. However, even a subtle perception of choice can make a world of difference.  For example, getting staff input early into your wellbeing curriculum, allowing people to get creative in how they implement lesson plans, organise the order of lessons to suit their own students, etc., can all be beneficial if done within agreed boundaries.  In any case, as a general principle of working with people in organisations, it is usually best to enable individual ‘point-of-need’ decision-making without consultation with, or intervention by, leaders.   Things get done faster, leader workload can be reduced, and bottlenecks aren’t as much of an issue.


We’ve already examine the importance of relationships when describing the PERMAH model.  Suffice to say here that relationships, relatedness, and connection are all ways of saying the same thing.  From the perspective of influencing, motivating, or inspiring change– if you perceive someone to be ‘like you’ rather than ‘unlike you’, you are more ready to take onboard what they say.  To communicate effectively then, we need to have a level of professional connection – which we can form through attentiveness, common grounding, and showing warmth.  (We covered ways to use these effectively these when speaking about Relationships in the PERMAH model – now may be a good time to go back and read that post if you haven’t had the opportunity!)


If I was given a dollar to share with you and gave you 50 cents, or $50 and gave you $10, which do you think would be more rewarding? One study that enacted this exact scenario and measured the brain’s reward response through fMRI shows that it is the first option – the fair one with less money – that people find more rewarding [3].  So, what’s going on here?  It turns out that how much money you get is less important that how fair you think it is.  In other words, 50 ‘fair’ cents is more rewarding for your brain than ten ‘unfair’ dollars.  Put another way, fair exchanges are themselves intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors.    Not surprising when we consider that people have put themselves at great risk in order to bring about greater fairness – think about Rosa Parkes or the non-violent resistance of Ghandi.  Fairness trumps a lot of other motives.

We need to be aware of maintaining fair interactions – and importantly, also maintaining the appearance of fair interactions – when seeking to bring about change.  For instance, has everybody affected by the new programme had the opportunity to comment on it before t’s set in stone?  Is what people are being asked to do unfairly weighted in some way?

Fairness ties in nicely with Certainty.  Establishing clear expectations can help ensure fair exchanges – whether it is expectations about what staff are expected to cover in a single wellbeing lesson, or in setting the scope and sequence for your entire school population’s wellbeing curriculum. Making a request of a staff member is more likely to be successful if it seems fair to them, rather than ‘just one more thing’ they have to do.

Putting it in practice

Consider the ways you are seeking to bring about change, in particular, ways to communicate to maximise your influence and ability to generate motivation/uptake.  (These three angles on the issue have the potential to save a lot of heartache!)

  1. In your messages, are you ‘baking in’ ways staff can exercise creativity and autonomy within the needed bounds?
  2. Are you maintaining a professional friendliness and connection?
  3. Is what you are proposing fair – and is it transparent enough that everyone who is part of it can see that it is fair?

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

‘Influencing others, influencing positively – Appreciative Inquiry.’

  1. Rock, David. “SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.” NeuroLeadership Journal1 (2008): 44-52.
  2. White, Mathew A. “Why won’t it stick? Positive psychology and positive education.” Psychology of well-being1 (2016): 2.
  3. 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.

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.