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Improving Team Culture In Early Years: Building Trust Between Colleagues  

Trusting relationships are at the heart of a positive team culture in the early years. Trust enables staff to authentically reflect together and in doing so, to get better together.  

Why Is Trust So Vital In Your Early Years Team?  

Organisational psychologists know that trust is an essential element in the culture of any organisation, and nurseries are no different. In his seminal work ‘The Five Dysfunctions of the Team’, Patrick Lencioni explains that the first dysfunction of any team is an absence of trust. Without trust, teams can’t communicate openly and honestly. Without open and honest communication, there is little chance of confronting the most pressing challenges and changing what needs to be changed.  

Trust enables teams to pinpoint improvements to make. Members of a nursery team that trust one another are much more likely to voice their honest perspectives in team meetings. They might raise questions that are on their mind, like:

  • ‘Pick-up feels a bit stressful at the moment, I feel that the children are getting more and more hyper and it all gets a bit frantic. I’m wondering if we can do anything about that.’
  • It’s mental health week next week and you [the manager] have asked us to come up with ways to celebrate it in our rooms. But I have no idea what this is going to look like in the baby room or even if it’s relevant to us. Does anyone have any ideas about this?’  
  • ‘Ever since we changed the tables for lunchtime in the toddler room, everything seems more chaotic. The children push the tables around all the time and we have to stop them. I think everyone working in the toddler room is feeling frustrated about the change.’

With these opinions on the table, there is a possibility for change to happen based on experiences coming from the bottom up. This is central to getting better as an organisation.  

Trust is not just about raising questions and ideas in team meetings, it is also the element that allows colleagues to have honest and critical conversations with one another in little moments day to day.

Let’s take the example of staff in the preschool room, where one colleague has just proudly set up a new activity station for the children to inspire maths learning. In the organisation where trust is lacking, the response of colleagues might be uniformly positive, with everyone just saying straightaway how great the set-up is. In an organisation where trust flows, others might be positive but also have some critical questions to ask about the activity station. They will be unafraid to probe. They might want to know more about the pedagogical values underlying the activity or whether there is enough freedom and playfulness in the activity to inspire the children’s love of maths. These colleagues know that these questions will be taken not as criticisms, but as constructive critique. If the trust is there, the colleague who has set up the activity station won’t feel offended or disheartened but will be open to the ideas and questions of others in order to create something even more effective.

Practical Tips For Building Trust  

Focus On Connection

Trust is an interpersonal phenomenon that comes from individuals feeling connected to one another. The work of Brene Brown has made us all aware of just how important it is to be vulnerable with others in order to deepen the relationships we have and spark trust in the context of organisations. As a leader, strengthening connections between colleagues can be something that you purposefully focus on. At the start of meetings it can work well to dedicate the first 5-10 minutes to connection and use prompts to enable staff to feel seen by each other. You could start the meeting by asking colleagues to each share their ‘rose, thorn and bud’ from the week just gone. 

  • Rose – a positive from the week just gone  
  • Thorn – a challenge you’ve encountered  
  • Bud – something you’re working on or excited about in the coming week

These reflections might go beyond just what individuals are enjoying to become a deeper exploration of areas of practice that we feel proud of and those that need more development. You might ask colleagues to share something that has worked well but also invite them to share concerns or parts of their practice they feel less sure about. 

Welcome (Respectful) Disagreement 

Too often in organisations, and particularly early years organisations, we see conflict and disagreement as a negative thing. We imagine that being a helpful team player involves being as positive as possible about what others do. But meetings are healthiest when there is some disagreement, as long as it is respectfully articulated and met in the right spiritHaving different perspectives, being able to share these and work through areas of disagreement is essential for building up collaborative critical reflection. To understand that it is not going to put any personal relationships in jeopardy, a team need to first hear this from a leader. You might say ‘Now, I’ll be surprised if we all have the same view on the next topic for discussion’ or ‘Please don’t feel awkward about disagreeing with the way I’ve laid out this issue. I’m keen to hear what you genuinely think’. With time, people’s tolerance of disagreement will grow and they can begin to see how it is a positive force for continual improvement as long as it is well-handled.

Involve Everyone In The Big Questions  

Leaders build trust when they invite their teams to engage in big discussions. This might mean engaging all the staff in a discussion about the organisational values and whether these still feel relevant and appropriate. It might be asking your team to brainstorm what can be done for the setting in the context of the current recruitment and retention challenges. It might be wondering together about the expansion of the baby room and what is going to be possible to respond to the upcoming increase in subsidised care. By engaging staff with these questions and listening to their ideas, and where possible acting on them, you are demonstrating your deep trust in the team. This trust can then ripple through the whole organisation. 

Discover more articles on teamwork and leadership 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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