5 common errors ECEC leaders are making
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > Accidentally sabotaging your team? 5 common errors ECEC leaders may be making

Accidentally sabotaging your team? 5 common errors ECEC leaders may be making

by Freya Lucas

August 15, 2023

While many leaders in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector have the best intentions and do their best to motivate and inspire their teams, there are some common mistakes which leaders make that can actually sabotage their team’s happiness. 


No one person is completely responsible for the happiness of others, however leaders can create the conditions which allow happiness at work to flourish by empowering others. 


In the piece below, author and sociologist Tracy Brower’s work has been recontextualised to the ECEC sector to learn more about the impact of leaders on ECEC workplace happiness.  


The difference leaders make


For many people their direct manager has more of an impact on their mental health and wellbeing than their doctor or mental health professional, with leaders and managers having an impact which is on par with the impact of a romantic partner. 


Leadership is not only a big responsibility, it’s also a big opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others. Through obvious actions, such as being flexible to meet the needs of individual employees through to more subtle actions, such as responding to challenge with grace and decorum leaders are truly ‘leading by example’. 


Because of this, Ms Brower argues, it’s smart for leaders to be aware of their influence, and to understand that intent does not translate into impact. 


In ECEC, a service leader may have the best of intentions when they make a rule which says the children of educators cannot be enrolled in the same service their parents work in, however the message and actuality of that rule may land badly. 


A director who wants to give their team autonomy over programming styles may find themselves accused of having a service that lacks structure, or may find it hard to show continuity of learning.


There’s no doubt that leadership is a challenging and complex space, however there are some common things leaders in all sectors and industries do which (often unintentionally) create barriers to satisfaction and fulfilment in their teams. 


  • Lack of transparency and responsiveness


The day-to-day of an ECEC service leader is complex, with competing demands for attention  from children, families, educators and other stakeholders. Despite this intense competition, team members thrive when they feel connected to their leader, and that they are both seen and heard. 


Recent research from Oracle found that one of the best ways for leaders to build trust and encourage strong performance is through being visible and accessible. 


Responsiveness is another core factor in building strong relationships as a leader, with another study finding that seemingly simple aspects of daily leadership life, like getting back to people promptly, closing loops and answering requests helped workers to give stronger effort to their work and in return to have stronger performance. 


“The best leaders are present, accessible, and demonstrate empathy,”  Ms Brower said. 


“They notice when team members seem down. They ask questions about how people are doing, listen, and pay attention when they respond. Leaders don’t have to be social workers, but they do need to express compassion and support and offer resources available through organisational programs.”

  • Forgetting to emphasise purpose, or to show gratitude


In their working lives, professionals need to feel a sense of purpose, and that they are connected to something beyond themselves that they are contributing to a bigger picture. When these conditions are present, employees feel a strong sense of importance and fulfilment. 


“Sometimes leaders can assume that if they tell someone once how their work has a sense of purpose, it was enough. But great leaders repeatedly reinforce how their team’s work matters, how much they appreciate someone’s contribution, and how an employee’s value is unique,” Ms Brower explained.


There are a number of ways in which leaders can express gratitude and remind their employees of how much they are appreciated, and how much value their work has to others. 


With Early Childhood Educators Day (6 September) on the horizon, the opportunities to appreciate are high. 


  • An absence of challenge


While some leaders may believe they are supporting their teams by keeping them away from challenges, when they do so they are missing an opportunity to help their team to stretch out of their comfort zone, and to learn and grow. 


Truly great leaders set clear expectations for performance, but then ‘get out of the way’ and allow their team to meet those expectations, which sometimes involves solving problems in novel ways. 


Creating a culture where it’s safe to fail, and when ‘failure’ is met with curiosity rather than critique is also important. 


This does not mean that there is no accountability holding people to account is also something strong leaders do however it does mean that there is space for team members to be autonomous and creative. 


  • Forgetting to put the team first 


Leaders need to not only nurture their relationships with the individuals in their teams, but also pay attention to the relationships team members have with each other. This is especially true in feminised sectors such as ECEC where interpersonal relationships can be complex. 


Typically, people are happier at work when they have opportunities to build strong relationships and bonds with one another. 


When the team is strong as a unit, and where people have the opportunity to get to know one another, they typically have better opportunities to understand where each other are coming from. 


Leaders can give people a chance to get to know each other so they feel more connected to and responsible for the work they rely on each other to accomplish.


  • Not being transparent


When leaders fail to share enough information to keep their team feeling connected and comfortable the team can feel psychological stress. 


To avoid this, leaders should share what they know and what they don’t know yet, but are working toward. While it’s not always possible for leaders to operate in an environment of absolutes, they can often offer clarity about what may happen, what questions are being asked, and how they might be answered. 


Being open and honest, where possible, about their own concerns. Authenticity and professionalism can be a difficult balance to strike, however when it is possible can support strong relationships and happiness at work. 


To read Ms Brower’s original work, on which this piece is based, please see here.

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