How to Change Workplace Culture One Team at a Time

Written by Michael Grant on September 6, 2018

Usually when we talk about workplace culture, we’re talking about the entire organisation. However, it is possible to look at culture on a more micro level, which can be important when trying to make significant change at the team level.

In 2010, I was brought in as leader of the communications team at the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) when the association was undergoing an overhaul. I knew that to accomplish the mandate I had been given by leadership, our team would need to make some significant culture shifts. This is my experience of changing culture for the better at a team level.

When I arrived at CSMLS, change was everywhere. The organization was entering a period of rejuvenation both internally and externally. It wanted members to experience that change. Communications was set to play a big role in that.

The communications team wasn’t known for its creativity, innovation, and collaboration. It was stuck in a cycle of executing annual activities and projects, in a way similar to how it always had. Silos and turf protection were more common than the organization would have liked, and this team wasn’t exempt.

Since then, we’ve re-positioned ourselves as an integrated and integral part of the larger whole, working closely with the other business units. We have aligned our communications programs with the organization’s strategic plan and now drive parts of that plan. Our work has even garnered some industry awards for its creativity and execution. I’m proud of what the team has achieved and the team deserves all the credit for that.

There were some intentional actions I took to initiate the type of culture I thought the team needed in order to have the success I wanted it to have.

First, I looked for some quick wins to demonstrate that change was really happening. I think people tire of endlessly hearing about change, so I wanted to focus more on showing rather than telling. These did not need to be big, grandiose gestures either. For example, I booked meetings with every team in the organisation to learn about what they did, where there was potential to work together and where we could help them. The perception of what the comms team did within the organisation started to shift.

Within the team I needed to create a shared vision. We had a lot of turnover at the time and needed new employees to integrate into the team quickly. During the hiring process, we looked for people who wanted to go on this journey with us, set bold and ambitious targets, and get creative. When we had this team together, we got everyone involved. We over-included instead of under-included. The whole team participated in brainstorming activities, campaign planning and creative design to instill the idea of proactively taking ownership of our good ideas. We also moved a lot of projects in-house, both for budgetary needs and to reinforce this cultural piece.

Recognition was important to build confidence and reinforce behaviours. When we started to have some success in our endeavours, we talked about it and shared it. Taking the time to notice achievements - and sometimes just grabbing a drink after a project sunsetted - was important for morale, so we could move on to the next project feeling motivated and excited. We submitted for, and won, several industry awards. This not only energized the team but validated that our work was of a certain calibre. And being able to share these awards with our organization’s leadership didn’t hurt either.

As we were growing together as a team, at times it did feel like we were “different” than the rest of the organization. But we weren’t on this journey alone. The whole organization was on its own cultural shift and we were part of that too. We were just able to move along the continuum a little quicker because of our size and willingness to embrace change. I’d like to think we were an example to the organization of how culture can drive results, and that we had a positive impact on the larger-scale culture shift taking place. The credit for the large scale change really belongs with the entire organization, as it took leadership from every level of the organization to accomplish it.

Eventually, and thankfully, our team didn’t seem like an outlier anymore.