Change is inevitable, regardless of the sector or industry it occurs in. In the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector in particular, change can be driven at a higher level by legislative and political changes, at a service level through changes in leadership or ownership, and at a micro level as team members' life circumstances change, and as people leave and join the organisation.
Supporting your team as a leader, through changes big and small, can help to build morale, boost a sense of togetherness and belonging, and create opportunities for growth and reflection.
While change management can be complex, the following six strategies can support leaders to make the process as smooth as possible.
Contextualise the need for change
There are few people who like and enjoy “change for the sake of change.” When rapid change is occurring in an ECEC context, it’s important for leaders to find the time to contextualise the need for the change, and to take the team on a journey of understanding.
Sharing information openly, being transparent, and being open about the ‘as yet unknowns’ can help the team to feel more comfortable and secure with the changes taking place.
Encourage them to be involved
It’s important to include a broad range of perspectives and voices in planning and delivering change. ECEC leaders should ensure that many people from across the team are consulted, including casual staff, to make sure that the change is one which is well understood and accepted across the board.
Involving the team creates a sense of ownership in the outcome of the plan, resulting in a higher level of engagement and commitment to its ultimate success.
Be willing to address concerns
Change can be uncomfortable and difficult to navigate. Sometimes, when faced with a change, people can experience a series of concerns, often in a predictable and sequential manner.
Initially, people will want more information about the change, seeking to understand what the change is and why it is needed. Then more individual and personal concerns will surface. Team members will ask questions such as “what’s in this for me?” or “How will this impact my workflow?”
Once they have consolidated this information, people will typically want support around the ‘how’ - what do I do first? Will I have the tools I need to be successful?
For change to be successful, leaders need to address, and sometimes revisit, each of these concerns in turn to lessen any fear or anxiety about the process.
Give them room to work
With any change, no matter how carefully it was planned, there will be some hiccups, and details which were not considered, or were overlooked. Making it clear to the team that there is space for mistakes when finding out how the change works in practice.
There will, of course, be some ‘non-negotiable’ elements to the change, but where there is scope, teams should be given room to move, tweak and adjust the change to make sure it works well in the context of the day to day running of the service.
Find a way to get the team to buy in to the change
To help build a sense of commitment to the change, work with the team to do something small but symbolic to embed the change and create a sense of buy in .
It could be something as simple as a morning tea, the renaming of a common area, or decorating a new space to have a visual reminder that things are different now. If the change relates to legislative or administrative changes, such as when the National Quality Framework was updated, the team might gather together and have a competition for the most creative way to recycle the old documents.
Welcome feedback, and be prepared to adjust the sails
It may be that a new system, process or way of working has a honeymoon period, where things are running smoothly, before it hits a snag.
It is important to let the team know that these ‘blips’ will happen, and to welcome feedback and suggestions about how the process, product or element may be better refined.
No leader can possibly foresee every contingency when implementing a change. However, when leaders become too tightly connected to the change they are leading, it can mean they meet this critique defensively, and become closed off to opportunities to reform or refine their work.
The single most important thing a leader can do, however, is to be honest...even if (and especially when!) they don’t have all the answers. Being honest and upfront about fallibility as a leader creates trust in the team, and opens up space for others to be vulnerable and learn along the way.
Once trust is lost, it can be a very long road back to regaining it, and transparency and vulnerability are vital tools in creating an atmosphere of trust and teamwork.