From boardroom to ball pit – what toddlers can teach us about the world of work

6 Feb 2020 By Emma Turner

Emma Turner explores what employers can learn from a more youthful approach to leadership, workload and development

During maternity leave I had a chance encounter with a former colleague in an unlikely meeting place – a soft play ball pit. After our conversation, I realised my achievements and leadership qualities were referred to exclusively in the past tense, as if that was all behind me now that I had three small children under five to look after. With women aged between 30 and 40 comprising nearly 40 per cent of leavers from the education profession, it’s clear we have to urgently address this haemorrhaging of talent and experience. A dramatic shift in the perception of flexible working and leadership styles is long overdue.

When we think of toddler behaviour, it’s easy to immediately envisage something totally at odds with the world of the grown-up workplace – no office has ever wanted more temper tantrums! However, if we look closer a blueprint emerges for instigating change, implementing a vision and encouraging colleagues and teams to be not only competent but happy at work.

Despite their questionable toilet habits and very basic language skills, toddlers are capable of effecting immense change by tapping into carers’ three main drivers: moral purpose, love of the job and a clear, shared understanding of what is important to do for the toddler to thrive. These three basic principles then allow for whole scale changes and shifts in culture and behaviour across a household. When we apply these principles to an organisation, they have very similar results.

Toddlers are unafraid to call out things that upset or frighten them. They are candid and honest about their feelings and seek help when things are difficult – no toddler lies awake at night thinking that they’ll just deal with this nightmare on their own. They either yell for support and help, or make their way to our rooms and press their little faces terrifyingly close to ours. This vulnerability is something we lose as we attempt to present a constant veneer of professionalism, and we could do worse than to harness the openness and courage with which toddlers seek help and ask the seemingly ‘daft’ questions.  

As a result of this honesty they are learning machines; their rate of development and acquisition of skills is staggering, as is their ability to focus on one thing until they have mastered it. If you have ever tried to assist a toddler who is desperate to put on their own shoe, you will know this to be entirely futile as they will continue with 100 per cent focus until the task is complete. Just imagine if we could harness this same commitment instead of believing it’s possible to flit between, juggle and multitask an infinite number of jobs from our to-do lists. 

Toddlers’ prioritisation of self care is also paramount to their success. When was the last time you saw a toddler decide to skip lunch as they had ‘too much on’? Eating, sleeping, play and exercise are fundamental parts of their existence. Somewhere between toddlerhood and adulthood, we seem to stop valuing eating meals at regular times and securing sufficient rest and exercise and start believing the thing to make us more productive would be to cut the very fuel that helps us fly. By encouraging colleagues to actively prioritise self care, we reduce absence and raise morale and productivity. 

Another aspect of toddler life that many adult workplaces are sadly deficient in, is finding the fun. Attempts to inject humour into the workplace can feel contrived at the best of times, but a simple positive outlook and smile both go a long way to promoting wellbeing at work. Be aware that we set the weather for everyone we work with in our organisations – and it is much more enjoyable to work in the sunshine than it is in freezing fog or drizzle. 

Our own inhibitions, fears and self doubts can make us forget the truly positive aspects of honesty, clarity, resilience, joy, fairness and a love of learning. To anyone who thinks that leadership might not be for them or thinks there is only one way to do leadership I would say look to our toddlers and how successful they are at implementing change and development.

Emma Turner is research and CPD lead at the Discovery Schools Academy Trust and author of Be More Toddler

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