Empowering Your Staff

My niece was raised in an empowering environment. Her mother encouraged her to make effective decisions — so as she grew older she would be well equipped to succeed in life.

To create an empowering learning environment takes time — more time than it would to just do everything for the children — at least in the short run. It takes time to tell a child over and over how to tie his shoes. It takes time to ask a child a question and wait patiently for a response. But once the children start acquiring new skills and they’re able to handle a task on their own — time is freed up.

The same philosophy applies to creating an empowering working environment. Unfortunately most child care leaders I consult with and survey say they feel like they fix everything for their staff. Personal problems and professional conflicts. This creates anything but an empowering environment. Like an atmosphere filled with stress and frustration. And it often leaves child care leaders feeling as though their staff are not capable of making decisions.

Well, if you would like to learn the dynamics of empowering your team — keep reading. The benefits to be gained are tremendous.

Let’s first start with the definition of empowering. Webster’s Dictionary defines empowering as giving authority. Please note empowering is so much more. Empowering is a continuous journey where an organization provides its team with the skills to make effective decisions and to communicate constructively. An empowering environment is one where team members are motivated and inspired to reach new heights without being nagged or begged. Team members think, they resolve problems, they are confident in themselves and in their own abilities.

What characteristics does an organization that is not empowering possess? Destructive communication such as unresolved conflicts, gossip, and a lot of complaining. Employees appear to be unable of making effective decisions and they perform at a minimal level. In a child care environment this means that no one will look beyond their classroom and their own immediate needs. They expect their leaders to fix problems for them. Team members are unmotivated and may not have a lot of confidence.

How do leaders in the child care profession prevent their employees from being empowered? One of the most common things I experience in child care, are leaders who try to fix problems for their employees. It could be a personal issue or a professional one — but leaders want their staff to be happy and they often correlate their team’s happiness with fixing their problems. A problem may arise with a parent and staff may not be equipped with the skills to handle the situation. A leader will take care of the problem without involving the staff member.

Leaders can also prevent their teams from being empowered through making decisions for their staff. Decisions that staff can make on their own. For example, a leader may feel that a teacher’s room set up would be much more effective by a shelf being moved. So on a day when the teacher is off , the leader will go in and change the shelf without consulting the teacher. When we fix problems or make decisions for our staff they miss out on the opportunity to learn and grow — to acquire new skills.

So in an empowering environment what do leaders do when problems arise? Leaders in an empowering environment expect their team members to think, to challenge themselves to reach new heights. For example, let’s say there’s a problem with a parent. The teacher comes to the director and tells her about the problem. In an empowering environment the director will say: so how do you think we should handle this problem or let’s set up a time where we can discuss this further and brainstorm for solutions. Or if it’s a crisis situation and there’s no time for such discussion the director will involve the teacher as much as possible — perhaps he can sit in on the meeting or be briefed after the situation is resolved. It’s all about helping your employees to build skills and to think!

In a lot of organizations I survey I find staff are really left in the dark and are not required to think outside of their basic responsibilities. Staff may have a conflict with their team members and instead of finding ways to resolve it — they run to the director with hope that he will resolve the problem for them. And the director, frustrated with the situation and bogged down with a million other things to do, jumps right in.

How can an organization begin the process of empowering their team?

1. Define problems/issues that your staff must discuss with you. These problems/issues usually encompass the health and safety of the children. Including verbal and physical abuse. It may also include crisis situations with parents.

2. Define problems/issues that you expect your team to resolve. These problems/issues usually encompass conflicts with co-workers or non-crisis situations with parents.

3. Coach your team to resolve problems. If your staff does not possess the skills to resolve problems — coach them and help them build their skills. Ask them questions, brainstorm with them. Yes — this takes more time initially — but down the road it save you a lot of time. It will mean that you can take a day off and your staff will make effective decisions in your absence. If a staff member runs to you with a problem — expect them to also provide solutions for discussion.

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