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Professional Development

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Taming Turnover: Is Manager Mindset Thwarting Your Success?

I love the game "2 Truths and a Lie." Let's play! Spot the falsehood:

  1. High employee turnover is common in afterschool and other childcare settings.
  2. High afterschool employee turnover hurts children, families, staff and providers.
  3. The key to improving afterschool turnover: Shift the mindset of frontline workers at risk of turning over.

Let's see how you did.

1. High turnover is common. This thorn in childcare's side has persisted nearly a century, with global and afterschool rates of 30 to 40 percent—that's 13 to 23 percent higher than all other industries. Why? Historically low and stagnant childcare wages, limited benefits, high stress, failed reforms ... The math adds up, in no one's favor.

2. High staff turnover hurts. Changing faces negatively affects parent confidence and child developmental outcomes. A revolving staff door is expensive, so providers must often raise fees. Parents who can't afford higher rates turn down needed work to stay home or leave children unattended, causing them to miss out on afterschool benefits while simultaneously facing serious risks associated with being unsupervised. Providers, on a shoestring budget, struggle with high replacement worker costs that may sink them financially, forcing closure on their community and staff layoffs. Costly turnover spares no one.

It's depressing. But stay with me! It gets better. Back to the game: Did you catch the lie?

3. The answer is NOT the afterschool employee. Focusing on frontline workers turning over won't solve anything. Why? They have no real ability to effect change on things leading to their voluntary separation.

Who does? The manager above them. Why? The manager bridges the organization—where retention and turnover resources, policies, expectations, and accountability are developed—and the afterschool program, where turnover occurs. No matter how much an organization doles out or how much an employee intends to stay in position, the afterschool manager is critical to staff retention.

Here's the key: Afterschool managers' ability to affect retention and turnover depends enormously on mindset. A snippet of what I learned in a three-year doctoral study that transformed our organization's focus and helped reduce frontline staff turnover by 26 percent in only four months:

Afterschool managers fool themselves. You need to call them on it.
Incredibly well-meaning, hard-working afterschool managers make classic cognitive and emotional defensive plays, sticking them in a turnover rut. For instance, they consistently over-report retention efforts, carried out far less often than stated.

SOLUTION: Create transparency and accountability for manager retention behaviors. Have them document efforts weekly and report monthly to their supervisor and peers. This creates valuable idea exchange and essential peer support around a tough topic.

Afterschool managers are in denial about being like "other" managers—those with a turnover problem.
Afterschool managers see management as a leading contributor to turnover—consistent with literature regardless of industry—yet see that as true for their peers, not themselves. While great for self-esteem, that feeds a blind spot that keeps managers disconnected from reality and subsequently not addressing the issue.

SOLUTION: Help managers feel safe being vulnerable, so they open their eyes. Use data to objectively illustrate real turnover figures. The numbers don't lie—and ultimately free managers to begin taking action!

Afterschool managers feel helpless about turnover.
Afterschool managers have a significant external locus of control around turnover. They see the causes as outside themselves and uncontrollable. This is problematic; you can't change what you don't see as within your realm of influence. Managers further exhibit Weiner's Hedonic Bias: They take credit for things going well (retention), while expressing helplessness over perceived failings (turnover).

SOLUTION: Managers can't have it both ways. Influence is influence. Ownership needs to be pressed on both accounts. Managers and their supervisors need to watch for these self-deceptions and challenge them when they arise. Only when managers believe they can positively affect turnover will they begin doing so. Hold up a mirror and get to it!

The final truth:
The sooner afterschool organizations tap into managers' mindsets as crucial to frontline staff retention, the sooner they'll stop wasting precious resources and start implementing focused solutions that finally tame turnover.

Written by Dr. Michele Wilkens, who serves on NAA's Board of Directors and as Chief Academic Officer for Right At School. Wilkens holds a Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership from the University of Southern California, where she was honored with a Dissertation of the Year nomination for the study cited in this article.

This article originally appeared in AfterSchool Today.