Nursery leaders typically have wonderful intentions when it comes to creating a positive team culture. Some pitfalls must be avoided to make this a reality. One such pitfall is the ‘executive subculture’ when leaders’ behaviours stand in the way of a positive team culture. In this article, we’ll talk about what the executive subculture is, how it negatively affects a positive team culture in organisations and how to avoid it.
What is the ‘executive subculture’?
Edgar Schein, the leading researcher in organisational culture and leadership, came up with the term ‘executive subculture’ to explain how leaders in organisations can sometimes end up trapped in a set of beliefs and behaviours that get in the way of a positive workplace. In this kind of executive subculture, leaders tend to do these four things:
- Over-emphasise the financial situation of the organisation. In a nursery context, this might be an owner or manager who focuses almost entirely on whether the nursery is profitable and financially sustainable, rather than concerning themselves with the pedagogical work of the nursery and the day-to-day interactions that matter for children, families and educators.
- Believe and act as if the organisation is operating in a hostile environment. A nursery manager with this belief might see other nurseries in the local area only as competition, rather than seeing the potential to partner up and learn from one another.
- Behave as though they alone want the organisation to succeed. Nursery owners and/or managers can start to (wrongly) think that only they are invested in the success of the nursery. In their mind, they start to feel like ‘the lone hero’ rather than seeing themselves as part of a team. They underestimate the contribution that other staff make.
- Create and strengthen hierarchies in the organisation. A nursery with a strong executive subculture is likely to have a rigid hierarchy in place and this hierarchy will affect the day-to-day conversations and interactions that happen in the nursery. A baby room educator might not feel that they can offer suggestions to the preschool room leader. The preschool room leader will feel that they cannot disagree with the deputy manager. The deputy manager will refrain from challenging the manager or owner, and so on. When relationships are hierarchical in this way, it is hard to have honest conversations about what needs to change.
Why is the executive subculture negative for the team culture across the whole organisation?
A strong executive subculture has negative implications for the overall workplace culture. It degrades the positive team ethos and ultimately gets in the way of a thriving nursery.
When there’s a strong executive subculture, employees in the nursery feel a lot of distrust for the owner or manager of the nursery. An owner or manager who seems overly competitive, hierarchical, and focused on making money won’t be someone that employees trust and feel that they can talk to openly. Therefore, the leader ends up feeling cut off from their staff and they are relying only on their perceptions and information to make decisions. These decisions are less likely to be good for the organisation because they are not based on full knowledge and understanding – they are based on hearing only what others think you want to hear.
How can you avoid executive subculture as a leader?
Understanding the characteristics of an executive subculture translates into a useful guide for knowing how best to avoid creating one. As a leader, you can:
- Recognise that leadership in nurseries is about far more than finances. The financial backdrop of nursery education is far from easy, and it is easy for a leader to become bogged down in making ends meet. While this is still a necessary part of the job, owners and managers must also always think about the nursery first and foremost as an educational institution and a support system for children and families. Leaders need to have a full presence in the pedagogical dialogues that take place in the nursery; these can’t be delegated to others.
- Make partnership and collaboration the priority and avoid thinking in terms of competition. Look around the local neighbourhood and think about the different nurseries close to where you are. How do you think and talk about these settings? How do you speak to staff about these settings? Do you promote a competitive way of thinking or do you look for opportunities to partner with local settings? The answers to these questions are radically different across settings. Some nurseries proactively seek conversations with nearby settings so that they can share resources and work together on local issues. Other nurseries are worried that nearby settings will steal ideas or staff, and this is a barrier to any kind of collaboration. By choosing competition over collaboration, you are not just preventing partnership working but also feeding into an executive subculture that can negatively impact your team in the long run.
- Always speak in the language of the team. Catch yourself when you start to think about yourself as ‘the lone hero’ having to do everything yourself and alone. Replace your ‘I’ thoughts with ‘we’ thoughts. If you find yourself thinking something like ‘I must sort out this staffing crisis’, challenge yourself to shift the narrative: ‘We are struggling with staffing at the moment and it’s a problem we need to solve together’.
- Dismantle rather than reinforce hierarchies. Put an explicit emphasis on honesty and productive challenge, encouraging everyone – regardless of roles or qualifications – to speak their mind and share what they think. You can make this way of working part of the induction and training in your nursery, but you also need to walk the walk every day. When honest feedback is given, avoid closing it down or becoming defensive: lean into the feedback and open it up for further discussion.