Developing workplace culture to move from competence to excellence


11 September 2023

When we notice something, we tend to recognise it more commonly. For example, if you notice a turtle in the water, you may then see many other turtles near the original turtle, but miss the first one and you may not look for others – what we pay attention to we get more of, and what we ignore, we miss.

As teachers and students are dealing with increasing work and life stresses, how can we refocus and reboot into paying attention to moving from competence to excellence without losing the compassionate support required in the workplace and classroom?

To foster a culture of continuous improvement, implementing small behavioural steps that involve everyone, including staff, students, peers, colleagues and others may be beneficial. By taking these steps together, you can ensure that everyone is on board and moving forward together.

Behavioural Step 1: Ensure the basics

It’s important to ensure that the physiological needs of your team members are being met. This includes providing access to food and water and encouraging regular breaks for lunch, exercise and mental rejuvenation. By creating an environment that supports these basic needs, you can help your team members stay energised, focused and productive.

Behavioural Step 2: Create a safe space

Consider both the physical and psychological safety of your people. Physical environments impact on how we feel. Make sure your environments are bright, open and stimulating, along with being safe and secure. When psychological safety is cultivated, people feel included and accepted; they feel safe to learn, contribute and finally challenge the status quo.

Behavioural Step 3: Check in

Humans crave for and seek out a place they feel they belong. This is why people from the same cultures or communities commonly group together and why like-minded people seek each other out. To ensure that everyone is feeling a sense of belonging, make sure you check in with people regularly. Do an ecological check – Are you okay? How do you feel? What’s going on for you? Show them you care and they are “your people”.

Behavioural Step 4: Be inclusive

Establish and communicate clear and visible expectations, regularly articulate inclusivity expectations to your team members, and don’t hesitate to call out any behaviours that don’t align with them. By consistently reinforcing a culture of respect and inclusivity, you can help create a workplace where everyone feels valued and supported. Use phrases like “we don’t tolerate such behaviour in our workplace” to send a strong message.

Behavioural Step 5: Encourage listening

Create awareness and protocols around ensuring every voice is heard. Invite people to voice their opinions when you notice they are holding back. Don’t be afraid to balance the dominant voice.

Behavioural Step 6: Take note

Be aware of your language and the messages you are sending out through your words. Reframe failure and mistakes into opportunities for learning and growth by acknowledging rather than being defensive. Be transparent in order to build trust and ensure your communication is open and respectful.

Behavioural Step 7: Positive reinforcement

Build a group think around building self-esteem. Focus and share individual strengths. Introduce a culture of sharing compliments. “Thank you for …” or “I liked the way you …”. Make them explicit to behaviours rather than “good job”, so people embed the positive behaviour. Create positive conversations in the lunch room.

Behavioural Step 8: Encourage collaboration

Create projects that are meaningful and purposeful with clear success measures. Ensure the projects are driven and created by those doing the work. Encourage a culture of collaboration rather than top-down direction. Ask “what is important to you?” Validate the projects and the success no matter how small.

Behavioural Step 9: Share successes

Celebrate, acknowledge, reward and share successes within the workplace. Acknowledge the value of all input. This can be through presenting projects with the whole group or celebrating as a group or displaying projects or many other creative ways.

Once you have captured the attention of your team members or students through these behavioural changes and by setting high standards and continuously challenging your team to improve, you can create a culture of excellence in the workplace. Encourage your team members to go further and to continuously seek out opportunities for growth and development.

This is where the importance of where we are focusing our thinking comes in to play. As the pandemic becomes endemic for example, we must reset our self-efficacy and rebuild our confidence to not just survive, but to flourish.

As we move ahead, it’s crucial to promote a growth mindset that embraces creativity, imagination and opportunities. While it may require courage, if teachers don’t take the lead, who will? We carry a great responsibility in providing this to the future generations we are tasked to serve.

Our primary focus should be on cultivating resilience and promoting growth mindsets, not just for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of the students we serve. Resilience entails having the ability to withstand and recover swiftly from adversities, while a growth mindset is the belief that one’s intelligence and abilities can be enhanced through deliberate efforts and actions. It involves embracing challenges, persevering through obstacles, recognising the value of effort, learning from constructive criticism and seeking inspiration. These are the traits we hope to instil in the next generation.

Where should we direct our attention? Here are six suggestions:

  1. Clarify your purpose. Understand the reasons behind your actions, what matters to you and what motivates you.
  2. Monitor your language and its impact on your thinking. The more you try not to think about something, the more you will. Avoid negative interactions and use positive, proactive language.
  3. Use dynamic, active language by turning static nouns into active verbs. For example, rather than “having anxiety”, say “feeling anxious at the moment”. This empowers you to make choices and take action.
  4. Minimise judgemental language. Avoid using words like “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”.
  5. Expand your questioning. Use open-ended, broad questions instead of closed ones. For instance, ask “What are the possible options here?”
  6. Emphasise continuous improvement. Focus on what you do well and how you can do even better.

To summarise, building workplace cultures that move from competence to excellence starts with focusing on our internal thoughts, feelings and beliefs, and how they influence our behaviours at work. We must identify the behaviours that need to be ingrained and embraced in our workplace and also recognise the underlying physiological factors that drive our actions. Developing awareness of these factors is the first step toward building resilience and a growth mindset, enabling us to strive for improvement and excellence.

By Helen Storr

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Winter 2023

[Helen Storr is VET Development Centre (VDC) facilitator. As a leader in professional development of the VET sector, the VDC prides itself on delivering quality, professional and relevant programs for the vocational education workforce in Victoria and across Australia].