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Bridging the Cultural Divide

I was recently invited to have lunch in southern Sydney with the CEO of a small disability organisation. There were two issues in particular she wanted to discuss.

The first was the cultural divide between the head office staff and the frontline support workers and the second was how to make the Team Leader role actually achievable. As these issues appear to be sector wide, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the first issue and tackle the second in another post.

Back to my story.

The specific incident that had caused the most animosity was when the new People & Culture Manager walked into the office on a Monday morning telling everyone how busy she is, including those service managers who actually didn’t get a weekend due to a series of client related incidents.

Not a huge issue in itself, but clearly this was the final straw for some.

So how do you help your Finance, HR, Admin and other ‘non-service’ managers and their teams understand the true nature of your business and the culture you wish to bring alive on a daily basis?

How do you begin to help people understand the reality of what it’s like to live with a disability? What it’s like to work as a disability support worker or what it even feels like to be a client of your organisation??

It’s pretty simple: You ensure that every new employee, regardless of their role, spends quality time with a support worker during their initial orientation. Time meeting clients and their families and listening to what their lives are like. Time spent listening to the issues faced by frontline workers.

Time spent earning the trust of frontline employees and clients - one conversation at a time.

Because in disability – as in aged care – the frontline IS the business. Every other layer of the organisation exists to support and ensure the quality of the client - frontline support worker relationship.

Back to my story (again).

It’s too easy to say that this particular manager maybe wasn’t a values-fit for the organisation. As the new People & Culture Manager she came highly qualified from a non-profit organisation outside the disability sector.

So she probably never had the chance to experience first-hand what life is really like if you rely on someone else to shower you, feed you or take you to the loo.

Or what life is really like for the parents of children with intellectual or physical disabilities.

Or what life is really like for those frontline support workers who may be juggling multiple shifts to earn a decent living wage whilst also trying to find the time to be the primary carers of ageing parents or young children.

In the human services sector, you can’t fast track quality outcomes. TRUST is not transactional. First up, it requires empathetic listening.

And empathetic leadership begins with taking the time to listen to others and seeking to genuinely understand the ACTUAL client and employee experience.

Too often, when new managers are dropped into this tumultuous sector for the first time, they race against time to complete an impossible task list only to find out (too late) that any initiatives built on fast tracked relationships will quickly fall apart.

Relationships aren’t tick boxes. Quality outcomes rely on quality relationships. And quality relationships take time.

Because trust has been lost on so many levels in the disability and aged care sectors, perhaps more than anywhere else, TRUST HAS TO BE EARNT.

As we seek to attract new talent and address the diabolical workforce shortages and staff turnover rates – a good starting point may be to consider how well you support new (and existing) "office" staff to succeed in their roles.


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