Article written by Keeta Williams
Published in Rattler Magazine, November, 2020
We look at why employee engagement is important for creating a positive culture and share strategies to help leaders inspire positive change in an early education and care environment.
Early childhood education services with positive organisational cultures have educators who enjoy their jobs and don't want to leave. A happy team should be a goal for all services, as it benefits individual members, the service as a whole, and families.
Organisational culture refers to beliefs and values that are commonly shared by team members, and the workplace practices that are perceived as normal and acceptable. Cultures usually develop over time and influence the behaviour of new members who join the team.
Services may benefit from cultural change if they experience:
High turnover of staff and families
Negative feedback from staff and families
Conflict or bullying
A low NQS rating
Low employee engagement
Cultural change can be a challenging and daunting task. A culture may be ingrained and coworkers may be resistant to change. However, success is possible and has long-term benefits for everyone involved.
UNDERSTANDING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
Employee engagement is a term that includes employee satisfaction, commitment and intention to stay.
"Engagement is often called passion," says Dr. Amanda Ferguson, an organisational psychologist in Sydney. "Organisations have strived for increased engagement since the 1990s. It is well known and accepted as the main predictor of business profit."
Community-based early learning services benefit from happy and passionate teams, even if they are not driven by profit. However, leaders must understand what their educators really want. Dr. Ferguson explains that the things that engage corporate workers may actually disengage workers in human-focused contexts like early childhood education.
"My PhD research found that the factors that stimulated corporate workers into positive engagement and organisational profits included bonuses, perks and promotions. Whereas medical workers were more engaged by things like making a difference, saving lives and feeling good about themselves."
THE BENEFIT OF ENGAGED EDUCATORS
Sarah Moore is a leadership coach and host of some of Community Early Learning Australia's popular leadership Masterclasses. She explains the benefits of positive employee engagement.
"When leaders create environments where employees feel a sense of safety, mattering and belonging, they are able to bring the best of themselves to work. They are more open, receptive, creative and open to influence.
"Engaged employees are healthier, happier and more productive. This is even more pertinent now with COVID-19 as many employees are feeling high levels of uncertainty. The longer this pandemic goes on, the more uncertainty people will experience and this will directly impact the engagement, health and wellbeing of employees."
Accurately assessing organisational culture and measuring employee engagement can be difficult. Personal perceptions can hide the truth and employees may not speak openly about their feelings.
Dr. Ferguson suggests that a good way to gauge culture is for organisations to survey employees. She suggests that accuracy is more likely if surveys are independently conducted and participants are kept anonymous because employees may be concerned their opinions will be linked to their performance appraisals. "Assessment tools and processes must be academically rigorous or research-based if the results are to be trusted," she says.
A STORY OF SUCCESS
Four years ago, Tara Kelly started as Director of Rose Cottage Childcare in Leichhardt. She planned to change the culture of her workplace, and she succeeded. She is incredibly proud of where they stand now as a service and a team.
In her first few weeks, she realised there was a lack of professionalism. The team had "cliques" and needed support in working together cohesively.
"I aimed to create a more professional and connected team of educators who held similar values and goals when it came to early childhood education," says Kelly. "Trust, honesty and communication needed to be at the centre of this, but it was challenging to make this happen when the educators were used to one way of doing things and not used to the difference in leadership style."
Kelly admits that changing the culture took time and dedication. She put in extra hours and her team spent time outside of work together. They had many conversations and meetings. They reached out for support and engaged in professional development.
The process of cultural change saw some educators leave and new ones arrive. Finally, a time came when every educator on the team was there for the right reason.
"There is no short or easy answer, it does take time but if you care and want to make the changes, there is always a way," says Kelly.
STRATEGIES FOR CREATING A POSITIVE CULTURE
A cohesive team depends on positive relationships, so invest time in talking with your coworkers. Cultural change is achieved "one conversation at a time", says Sarah Moore. "When we put relationships before tasks and help people feel seen, heard and that their contributions matter and are important, the culture in services can change rapidly."
Connect through education
Remember why you chose this career. Bond as a team through your passion for early childhood education. While educators will have different personal philosophies, it is important to discuss these and develop a shared philosophy about how children learn best. Stay motivated by inspiring each other professionally.
Plan as a team
While change may be instigated by an individual, success will come from working as a team. "Look to taking the time with one another to really reflect, research, discuss and plan where to go from there. Then reflect and begin again! This is a huge part of who we are as early childhood professionals," says Tara Kelly.
Remember the importance of diversity in early childhood education. Reflect on your own personal culture and celebrate the cultures of others in your team. Children benefit and learn from a diverse team of educators who can work together to achieve common goals.
Be a role model
Demonstrate positive behaviour, especially if you are in a leadership position. New and less experienced team members will adopt behaviours from their coworkers. Evaluate your own practices before expecting others to change.
Policies and procedures should be refined and clearly communicated, so everyone understands what is expected of them. Leaders should reward good employee performance and confidently address underperformance when it occurs.
Be emotionally aware
Reflect on your own emotions before you arrive at work each day. " It is easy to forget that our emotional state can influence those around us," says Moore. "In preschools and childcare centres, if individuals and teams are positive and engaged in their work, the children they are working with will be too."
If you are surrounded by coworkers who are resistant to new ideas, focus on yourself. Increase your own employee engagement. Strengthen relationships with all coworkers, even those who act differently to you. "We cannot change other people's behaviour, but we can influence it," says Moore.