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They say that culture eats strategy for breakfast. What this means is that without an intentional and strong culture in your early years nursery, it doesn’t matter what action plans you have in place – it will be impossible to implement the improvements and developments you want to see.

So what exactly is culture, how does it work and why does it matter so much? In this series, we will be zooming in on organisational culture in the context of nurseries to understand more about how to make it work as a fundamental part of leadership. In this first article, we consider how to think about organisational culture in your nursery and the influence it has over all of the everyday interactions that make up the work of the nursery.

What Is Organisational Culture?

We can define organisational culture as a set of values, practices and expectations that guide day-to-day practice at work.

In the nursery, we can see culture in the way that everyone interacts with everyone else. Every interaction is an indicator of the culture of the organisation – whether it is an interaction between two educators, an educator and a child, two parents as they drop off their children, how managers speak to the employees of the nursery, how they pick up the phone and so on. Beyond interactions, we can see culture in the organisation and upkeep of the physical environment. Longer-term, culture will impact on the support that children and families feel and the progress that they can make in the learning environment.

Why Does Culture Matter?

Any development that you want to see happening in the context of a nursery will depend on the culture of the nursery. You can think about culture as the grease around the levers. If organisational culture is stuck and people are resistant to change, improvements will be extremely difficult to make happen. It would be like struggling with a lever that has rusted over.

If, on the other hand, the organisational culture is one that values continuous improvement, individual development and a collaborative approach, pulling on an improvement lever will be much more straightforward. This means that a fundamental part of leadership is about establishing and maintaining an organisational culture that constantly enables development, rather than just coming up with a stream of potential ideas for improvement.

I recently spoke to a nursery manager who had been keen to shift how mealtimes were done in the baby room of their nursery. They wanted to move away from high chairs and instead introduce low tables and chairs, which enabled freer movement among the babies. They had been influenced by a piece they had read about the importance of independence and choice for baby room practice. One of the examples in the article they had read was this change in the equipment for mealtimes. In a team meeting with the baby room staff, the manager introduced the change that they wanted to make and explained that the new tables and chairs would be arriving in less than a week.

What happened next was much more a consequence of the organisational culture than whether or not this particular change is good or bad. The baby room staff felt, understandably, that the abrupt change was a sign of how little their experience with the babies was appreciated. They could understand the rationale for increasing babies’ independence at mealtimes, but when the new tables and chairs arrived, they found the reality of each mealtime hugely frustrating. They struggled to help the babies to sit in the chairs for long enough to actually eat a decent amount and the noise of the babies pushing the chairs around was over-stimulating for everyone, babies and educators alike. Despite sharing their frustration with each other at the end of every lunch time, they did not feel able to express their concerns to the nursery manager who had been so determined to implement the change in the first place.

This scenario is symptomatic of an organisational culture which is overly hierarchical, where everyday experiences are not adequately valued and where frustrations become a ripple of discontent through the organisation, rather than a starting point for positive change. If instead the organisational culture in this particular nursery had been one that prioritised collaborative reflection, the change would never have been introduced in the way that it was. If the staff had come together in a discussion about babies’ independence – and whether this was a value that they could develop further in their practice – the specific changes to mealtimes could have been decided and monitored by all and frustrations would have been an essential part of learning, rather than a demotivating force for the staff.

The lesson here is that leaders’ good ideas are only good ideas if they are embedded in an organisational culture where everyone’s ideas and experiences are valued and where change is a process that all are a part of.

Envisioning The Organisational Culture

A leader’s first job is to foster a strong and powerful vision of what the organisational culture should be. It is not as simple as ‘good culture’ versus ‘bad culture’. A positive culture can look and feel different from one nursery to the next. The foundation for establishing a distinctive and effective culture in a nursery is to imagine what this culture will look like.
It can be helpful to practise visualising the organisational culture you want to build in your nursery. As a starting point, you can close your eyes and imagine the following interactions. Once you have them in your mind, write down the key aspects of what you saw.

  • A team meeting
  • Parents on a show-around
  • Mealtimes
  • Staff saying goodbye to each other at the end of the day
  • Catch-ups between staff and parents at the beginning and end of the day
  • Children and educators interacting during free play
  • An appraisal of a staff member after 6 months of being there

What does imagining these interactions tell you about the organisational culture you want to create? What values, expectations and practices do you most want to prioritise in your nursery’s organisational culture?

Take a look at some of our other leadership blogs here:

Leadership and childcare expert, Mona Sakr

About the author:

Dr. Sakr is a leading expert in educational leadership, her current research focuses on developing leaders across the early years, with a special emphasis on the baby room.

Leadership and childcare expert, Mona Sakr

About the author:

Dr. Sakr is a leading expert in educational leadership, her current research focuses on developing leaders across the early years, with a special emphasis on the baby room.

Leadership and childcare expert, Mona Sakr

About the author:

Dr. Sakr is a leading expert in educational leadership, her current research focuses on developing leaders across the early years, with a special emphasis on the baby room.

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