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Feeling the Chill with your team?

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Try warming things up with the SCARF model

Make sure you take the time to take the temperature of your team. Do you know how attuned they really are to your vision for taking the school forward? Are they energised or drained by the work they do, day in, day out? And do you know how they connect their values and aspirations to their role and responsibilities?

If you don’t, then there is plenty of scope for warming up your relationships, which should in turn yield an improvement in both team dynamics and performance. People, not the school improvement plan alone, determine the outcome. So how do you check the quality of the professional relationships you have? One approach, developed by David Rock CEO of Results Coaching International, draws on understanding of how the brain works to enhance self and social awareness and improve the quality of daily interactions.

The SCARF model was developed from the findings of neuroscience as to what drives human behaviour and how people interact socially. The brain treats social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards. A threat response tends to reduce the capacity to make decisions, solve problems and cooperate with others whereas a reward response increases capacity. Thus, a leader who can keep their team and themselves more often in a reward frame of mind will stimulate positive emotions and capacity to perform.

The model is made up of five areas: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

Status – our sense of worth in relation to others

Certainty – our ability to predict the future

Autonomy – our sense of control over events

Relatedness – our sense of safety with others

Fairness – our perception of fair exchanges between people

So how can a school leader use the SCARF model?

Implications for the school leader:


Show you value your colleagues

  • How do you make all the staff feel part of your team, not just the senior leaders you work most closely with? Irrespective of their formal status within the school, from teacher to TA to office cleaner they need to know you know who they are, what they do and value their contribution.

  • Keep everyone informed (notwithstanding confidential issues), sharing knowledge will assist others in feeling vested and invested in.

  • Involve others so that they feel valued and acknowledge good ideas can come from anywhere in your organisation.

  • Provide accurate feedback, whether it be for a lesson you’ve just observed, a meeting or how a member of staff dealt with an argument between children lunchtime.

  • Celebrate the positive, but take care to avoid mollifying the feedback to be nice – this does a disservice to the individual who is deprived of information they need to improve. Otherwise, what they have been told about their worth and what you really believe are different and lead to an inauthentic relationship.


Avoid ambiguity in your daily encounters

  • Set clear expectations of people. Acknowledge in staff meetings that everyone is welcoming students at their doors or that you want staff to always challenge those dropping litter.

  • Ensure each team member has a clear understanding of who is doing what, who is responsible for different aspects and what the extent of their authority is. If a new assessment and reporting system is being introduced is it clear who has responsibility for identifying the information to collect electronically? When team members have a clear understanding of roles, it makes the team more effective.

  • Actively manage uncertainty from external factors. Funding cuts may mean difficult decisions can’t be avoided but communicating timescales and steps involved in those decisions can help alleviate uncertainty about the process.


Provide a degree of choice; avoid micro-managing

  • Micro-management reduces trust and increases anxiety and can stifle creativity. Consider what discretion you can give at the point of decision-making: you still set the overall objective but the means by which you get there is left to the individual.

  • For example, you want to strengthen links with your feeder primary school so there is greater continuity for example in the English curriculum. Your prescribed way may have inhibited the person tasked with making it a reality from sharing their creative storytelling ideas to design a storytelling transition project that would add greater value to meeting your objective.


Connect with your team on a human level

  • Enjoy all the many interactions you have on a daily basis. As a leader no matter how many times you say “my door is always open” don’t wait for others to cross over the threshold. Go out of your way to visit their classroom, sit in the dining hall or walk the corridors to make the connections.

  • Be curious and give high quality attention to their ideas, thoughts and motivations.

  • Ask what you can do to help them get better and to support their longer-term aspirations, not just to meet an annual performance management objective.

  • With so many aspects of the curriculum, assessment and school structures changing, remember that people take on board change when they are emotionally engaged and committed.

  • People first, then strategy. Meet with others, face to face and take time to laugh and share stories to really connect with them. It’s often said that children need to know you care before they care about their work and are ready to learn. Staff knowing you care builds resonance, making your vision for a better school more likely to become a shared one in thought and action by all the team.


Build fairness into your operating principles

  • Ask yourself “what’s it like to be on the other side of me?” in order to get a sense of how your actions and behaviours match your operating principles with different members of the team.

  • Be transparent (more than may seem necessary). You may have a clear rationale for restructuring roles but the Head of Faculty seeing their role disappear will have an emotional response first. Making clear your reasons will help them take it on board and ensuring any processes are fair, understood and reiterated will help mitigate a natural threat response.

  • Give feedback equally to colleagues. Greater feedback to some puts them at an unfair advantage to others as they are helped to get better.

The working relationship a leader has with the people they lead is critical to the success of an organisation. Nothing important in school gets done alone; in relationship management remembering to use your SCARF could just make you and your team warmer and more effective.

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