When a small-town workplace breaks down: Why cultural reviews in small country towns are a unique challenge

Not long ago, I went to a small country town to do a cultural review at the local health service. Let’s call the town ‘Bullyton’. The situation at Bullyton Health Service was dire. The nursing staff was bitterly divided; behaviours indicative of harassment and bullying had come to be seen as ‘pretty normal’. The workplace was literally on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I came in to uncover and unpack the issues that had led to this, and to recommend solutions.

What I found was a much more complex and multi-layered situation than you would find in a larger metropolitan workplace. Because here’s the thing: when you work in the local health service in a small town, you’re working alongside people who you’ve probably known since childhood. Your parents probably knew each other. You play on the same netball or cricket team as your co-workers and managers. You see each other out at the same two or three pubs and eat at the same three or four restaurants.

The lines between work and non-work are blurred. Your lives – inside and outside of work – are enmeshed in a way that doesn’t happen in the big smoke.


So what does that mean for the conflict resolution practitioner or workplace consultant?


Here’s what I learned in Bullyton:

You can’t limit your review to what happens within the four walls of the workplace. Relationships in rural communities are complex: an employee having communication issues with their manager may also coach the netball team the manager plays on. Their kids may be best friends. Exploring power and control issues in the workplace can’t be disengaged from the relationships that exist outside it – you have to tease out all these strands to have the whole picture.

Be aware of the wider repercussions of these intermeshed relationships. In a rural community, there is nowhere to hide. It’s like being under a microscope: everyone knows you – who you’re married to, who your kids are. The vulnerability and shame that can come with going through a conflict resolution process are amplified when it’s not just the workplace that knows the story, but the entire town. You need to bring your empathy and understanding of this with you.

I can’t overstate the importance of on-boarding practices in these settings. One of my key recommendations to the health service was to stop taking shortcuts with on-boarding new employees. They need guidance on how to manage this tricky personal-professional balancing act – what the relationship boundaries are and how to manage the diverse set of roles that living and working in a small town can impose. That includes tricky reverse power roles where the power balance flips from one setting to another.

Having a strongly entrenched speak-up culture is vital. People need to have open and honest conversations from the start, because in a small-town setting it’s just too destructive to let things get so broken people’s lives are affected outside of work. Key recommendations of my cultural review at Bullyton Health Service were about relearning how to have honest conversations, enshrining ongoing feedback and building the infrastructures to promote a speak-up culture, so things could never reach such a destructive point again.

Make sure your client is in it for the long haul. To fix the issues we have to deconstruct, blow things up. What’s really important is to put them back together in a positive, sustainable way that brings about real cultural change. If that doesn’t happen, the issues will reappear in a matter of months. And because the repercussions are so much greater in a small-town setting, we’re talking about seriously damaged lives – not just a career hiccup.

At Bullyton, there was a managed exit for one of the Senior Health Practitioners – after such an extreme degeneration of relationships before anything was done to fix things, this was a necessary outcome. Now, to practice their profession, the practitioner has to either move house or drive two hours to another health service in another town. Getting it wrong in a rural workplace can really disrupt lives. And that’s why it’s so important to take action before it’s too late.

I can help with resolving conflict in your workplace, and provide skills-based training programs to prevent it. Find out more about how I can help your workplace relationships or give me a call on +61 413 145 925.

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