Changes in Organizational Culture — Everything DiSC Done Right

The San Diego Humane Society (SDHS) has experienced a tremendously positive shift in organizational culture during a period of change unlike any they have seen in their 138-year history.

Taking on contracts for several neighboring municipalities in the past 2 years has required them to undergo a massive expansion. They have nearly doubled the number of animals they care for and, likewise, have increased the number of team members by almost 100%.

(Read the first article in our series about the tremendous growth and amazing changes happening at SDHS — click here.)

A woman wearing a blue hat petting a light brown puppy while contemplating changes in organizational culture at her work.

At Integris, we feel a warm sense of pride that our recently established relationship with SDHS continues to provide effective, affordable leadership training through proven content like Everything DiSC® and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.

The purpose of Everything DiSC is to increase communication and produce greater understanding when conflicts arise. The scope of change SDHS was experiencing would certainly require them to grow in these and other similar areas.

Using Tools to Grow

When utilized properly, a well-researched and validated personality assessment like Everything DiSC seeks to:

  • Provide a common language to help team members understand one another and work better together
  • Instill a deep understanding of one’s own strengths and areas for improvement
  • Help team members better understand colleagues who are different (or too much alike)
  • Improve employee and workplace communication
  • Act as a springboard for conversations and team building
  • Reduce conflict and avoid misunderstandings

As a result of training in leadership, team dynamics, and communication skills, SDHS is seeing positive, tangible growth that leads to better working relationships, collaboration, and outcomes.

We’ll let one of their organizational leaders share some insight into how Everything DiSC and other trainings we are conducting are providing the necessary relational skills to prosper in their mission to serve the animal community of the greater San Diego area.

(Interested in joining us? Learn more about upcoming trainings here.)

Organizational Culture Change Can Be Exciting

Times of sweeping change often result in skepticism and negativity. However, the atmosphere at SDHS is anything but negative despite the incredible growth they are experiencing.

We recently sat down with Lisa, the San Diego Humane Society Director for Guest Relations, to learn more about how training with Integris had facilitated cultural change within the organization.

During our conversation, Lisa spoke excitedly about what quality leadership development, particularly Everything DiSC, has done for her as a leader, and for those she works so closely with at SDHS to serve animals and people in need.

“The excitement, enthusiasm, and positivity are absolutely palpable. I know if we had the small number of people in our facility that we had 10 years ago, it would be nervous panic. Today, all I see are smiles and people having fun.”

Organizational Culture Change Can Be Challenging

Unfortunately, the culture at SDHS was not always so enthusiastic, even though it wouldn’t be described as unfriendly or overly negative.

Long-term employee retention and the competition to fill the positions that only occasionally became available proved that SDHS had always been an organization many professionals desired to be a part of. However, a lack of communication and trust among the team members seemed to stand in the way of the organization truly thriving in its mission to serve the community of San Diego.

The organizational culture that had existed for many years might best be described as divided. There was a territorial feel within the organization when it came to getting work done, despite all that was being achieved. Among those employed there, turf was defended, and trespassing into areas beyond one’s own responsibilities was frowned upon.

“We were always polite and cordial, but we felt obligated to wait for the right person to become available,” Lisa said.

When Lisa joined SDHS in 2009, she noticed that people didn’t often share responsibilities and roles were clearly defined. Team members adhered to them strictly, and most people felt obligated to stay in their own lane within the boundaries of their job descriptions.

“To me, as a person, it was a bit defeating. It was stifling. It didn’t feel natural. People had to be convinced to help, or they needed encouragement to get involved rather than wait for the designated person to arrive.”

Operations, policies, and procedures were well-defined to the point of rigidity, yet the need to change was obscured for many within the organization.

Why Should We Change Our Proven and Successful Organizational Culture?

That’s an excellent question: Why would a successful organization like the SDHS need a culture change?

After all, they were regarded as leaders in their field, evidenced by the renowned veterinarians and experts in animal welfare who visited from all over the world to study the organization’s processes and procedures.

Despite that reputation, new leadership saw vast untapped potential within the organization and began planning cultural changes that they hoped could unleash that energy and take their outcomes to new heights.

Entrenched culture that stands on years of structure and tradition doesn’t change easily. Change is almost always difficult, and it can meet strong resistance when people are mostly content with the status quo.

The old culture carried with it an image of prestige. The organization was selective about which animals would be taken in, and they meticulously screened potential owners. What was considered the proper qualifying process to determine whether a potential owner was fit to adopt an animal was long and rigorous.

The work was time consuming and stressful for all who were involved, and it was further impeded by the organizational culture of asking, “Whose job is it to handle this?” instead of, “How can I help?”

New Challenges Necessitate New Methods

It became obvious to the new leadership that a culture change that incorporated a stronger spirit of helpfulness and collaboration was needed to prepare the organization for the journey they were about to undertake.

In early January, 2010, SDHS absorbed the duties and facilities of the animal welfare organization in neighboring Oceanside, CA. For the first time ever, SDHS would be responsible to fulfill municipal contracts for taking care of stray or abandoned animals, and sheltering animals of owners experiencing personal crises. Up until this time, SDHS had been solely involved with owner relinquishment and subsequent adoptions. This new responsibility involved legal complexities they had never dealt with.

(Learn more about the amazing growth at the San Diego Humane Society in our opening article to this series — click here.)

It required the organization to gain knowledge in the handling of strays and dealing with their owners, which was an undertaking that involved a lot of unpredictable pieces and required a new sense of flexibility and communication — the increased skills that Everything DiSC could provide.

These new services to the community were vital to the organization’s ever-expanding mission, which had broadened with the merger.

There was no doubt that such services were more beneficial to the municipality than the selective and prestigious adoption center where animals and potential owners are carefully hand picked, but that would require increased willingness to tackle a lot of unknowns.

SDHS had not operated in unknown territory in many years, and, as we mentioned, organizational culture change on any scale can be uncomfortable for the team members involved. This was no small change.

Organizational Culture Change Demands Better Communication — When DiSC Went Wrong

Without a doubt, SDHS was filled with highly-qualified and capable individuals. It seems the problems they were facing stemmed from the fact that they were acting as just that — individuals.

The leadership recognized the need for further training and leadership development to bridge gaps, improve communication, and bring about a spirit based on helpfulness, empathy, and collaboration.

Their experiences with such training had been less than exciting. Some years prior, the HR department within SDHS did its best to conduct its own internal DiSC training. Despite best intentions and efforts, it achieved less-than-optimal results.

Lisa remembers that there was heavy focus on personality styles and styles of communication, but, somewhere along the way, team members found that it had gotten off track. The way the information was presented led them down a path toward labelling people, forming strong assumptions that hindered (rather than opening up) channels of communication.

Lisa recalls comments like this one: “Oh, you’re a D. That means you’re going to be forceful, and I’d better take that into account before I speak with you next time.”

Without the proper follow up on how to practically apply the information provided by the Everything DiSC assessment, the exercise led to the development of preconceived notions about others that actually handicapped communication rather than creating opportunities to address issues and challenges. People found they had developed assumptions that led them to experience some loss of their natural empathy for their teammates and to experience a decrease in their willingness to genuinely listen to each other.

Lisa summarizes that initial experience with DiSC in this way:

“It was almost too generalizing and categorizing. There was just an overall negative quality to the whole affair.”

Those were certainly not the results they so badly needed.

Cultural Change — What Happened When DiSC Training Went Right

Let’s once more briefly consider how things are going in the midst of the current round of sweeping change and growth at SDHS.

Lisa described the positivity and sense of helpfulness and collaboration as “palpable.” What happened that led them away from negativity and skepticism to an overarching sense of willingness?

“The atmosphere of the training put on by Integris was qualitatively different,” Lisa said. “(The training), of course, explained the basic premise of the personality traits, but it really developed into an explanation of how to use this knowledge. We learned how our own styles could both help and hinder us, and we were given ideas and tools to overcome things within us that might hold us back in either our positions as a whole, or within an individual project.”

(Read the story of how the SDHS-Integris partnership started — click here.)

“It was put in a way that was very positive, and it wasn’t at all divisive like our previous experience. This time, the DiSC training with Integris increased our understanding, both when we attended the training in Santa Monica and when Brett came to work with our teams directly.”

The training allowed them to reflect on how they were feeling, and it gave them the tools to describe it. They had a realization that the way they were interacting with their other teammates could change the conversation. It facilitated vulnerability-based trust and a willingness to engage others around difficulties and issues they were facing as a team.

“Everyone is now more self-aware as a result of the training — it was an immediate change.”

The fundamental difference in DiSC done wrong and DiSC done right is developing and fostering an awareness of how the information on individual personality and work styles could be utilized to best work together in groups and change the internal organizational culture — team members as individuals, and collectively as an organization, were really learning to collaborate at last.

(We’d like to invite you to join us in San Diego — click here to learn about the program!)

More Than Just Organizational Culture Change — DiSC Promotes Individual Growth

So much growth is possible in times of great overall change, and SDHS is a wonderful example of change from rigidity and skepticism to flexibility and willingness to collaborate and be helpful to others.

Our goal at Integris is to:

  • Expose people to the power of quality leadership development content and ideas that makes change positive
  • Develop understanding and trust
  • Allow organizations to meet and exceed their greatest hopes and goals

That said, we feel we’ve cracked the code for successful development in a way that allows a much deeper impact on not only the organization, but on the people within the organization.

In our upcoming post, we’d like to share with you the personal growth as a leader that Lisa has experienced, and the growth she has observed in the individuals she works with on a daily basis.

The Opportunity For Cultural Change Is Available to You and Your Organization

What has developed out of our partnership with SDHS is a series of affordable leadership training sessions open to businesses, government agencies, and other nonprofit organizations in the San Diego Area.

We invite you to take a look at the program and consider joining us! We’d love to help you develop the relationships and spirit of collaboration within your team that aid you in changing your organizational culture into all you’ve hoped it could be.


Brett Cooper

Brett is the visionary President of Integris Performance Advisors, a professional development firm he co-founded to expand the existence of healthy organizations and great places to work. By creatively bringing together concepts from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by Patrick Lencioni), The Leadership Challenge (by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner), and Lean Six Sigma, Brett and his team have influenced thousands of people in government, non-profits and corporate America to work together in more productive, more effective and more human ways. Outside of his role at Integris, Brett dedicates time to serving others in need. He is a volunteer coordinator for the East Bay Stand Down and Stand Down on the Delta, two non-profits serving the needs of San Francisco’s homeless Veteran population. He is also board member and financial sponsor for Partners in Sustainable Learning, whose mission is to bring early childhood education to marginalized communities in the developing world (current projects are underway in Nepal).