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Lisa Hawksworth

scarlettabbott

Director of Culture and Insights

Read more about Lisa Hawksworth

Mergers and acquisitions: How to combine two workplace cultures

The coming together of two businesses can be incredibly difficult to pull off and often results in failure. So how can we make it work?
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Culture can often be assumed and taken for granted, but it shouldn’t be. Understanding the unique habits, ways and values of merging organisations is crucial for a successful integration.

It’s typical that different organisations will have different cultures, and that’s ok. By identifying the cultural elements of both businesses – where they complement each other and where they differ – you’ll be able to anticipate areas of potential alignment and clash.

Taking the time to do this can also provide valuable insights to inform your approach for engaging, communicating and informing employees throughout the merger/acquisition process – another key factor to making sure it’s a success. 

Getting to the crux 

To successfully bring together all elements of culture to support your business goals, you need to understand where you are now and where you need to be. This can’t be done through guess work or assumptions: it needs to be dug into, unearthed and examined.

Experience, expertise and common sense are valuable but they should be balanced with a consideration for people’s feelings.

This means on-the-ground understanding of what your culture looks like in the day-to-day lives of your people, and defining what you mean by culture so that you can effectively evaluate it.

Managing change

It goes without saying that managing the change your people – both new and existing– will be going through is a vital part of any merger or acquisition. It’s not a dark art, and nor does it have to become needlessly complicated.

Experience, expertise and common sense are valuable but they should be balanced with a consideration for people’s feelings. Many companies mishandle change, often due to thoughtless and insensitive behaviour. So take colleagues’ emotions into account: they’ll play a central role in driving their reactions and responses.

Trust is a vital element: your people need to know you have their interests at heart and are acting with integrity.

It’s also important to bring them on the journey with you: channelling a ‘bottom up’ communication approach will empower them, helping them to take ownership of, and contribute, to the change programme. 

This also means prioritising open and honest communications, so people feel listened to and appreciated, and paying particular attention to anyone who’s been through such a process before. Set out explicit expectations for these people and reassure them that you’re using industry-leading methods.

Putting people first

All this feeds into putting the employee experience front and centre – a vital piece of the merger/acquisition puzzle. If the employee experience is overlooked, the rate of attrition can skyrocket: EY estimates that 47% of executives leave a newly-merged company within the first year. 

So forget the top-down functional approach to communication, be empathetic and look at the process through all lenses of the employee experience. What will it mean for people at an entry level, at senior management level and everything in-between? What will they be asked to do differently? What can they get excited about? Which voices can you involve early and often to make sure all perspectives are accounted for? 

You need to keep your finger on the pulse throughout the process to make sure your people are along for the whole ride, not just at the start.

That’s where cultural anthropology and its specialist ethnographic research methods come into play. Ethnography is about spending time with your people and understanding their worlds of work from their perspective so you can really get under the skin of your culture, and bring blind spots, gaps and tensions that leaders may not easily notice to the surface. 

Once that foundational work is done, effective communication plays a crucial role in addressing people’s uncertainty. To nail this, make sure teams leading the merger/acquisition work closely with internal comms to identify key messages, choose the right communication channels to get those messages out and create transparency and trust.

Remember that trust is a vital element: your people need to know you have their interests at heart and are acting with integrity. If this emotional transaction is lacking in any departments, you’ll need to work to establish that trust, so you have a solid foundation for change communications.

Key indicators

Measure and evaluate your efforts so you can track their progress and, more importantly, spot areas for improvement. Mergers and acquisitions take time and you need to keep your finger on the pulse throughout the process to make sure your people are along for the whole ride, not just at the start.

Creating forums for people at every level of the business will give you insight and comment you simply can’t get from a survey. 

To measure your efforts effectively first, establish your key indicators. These should reflect the level of employee commitment, satisfaction and motivation, so you can gain insights into the overall engagement of your people.

Alongside this, set a baseline. This will show you what employee engagement was like before the merger or acquisition began, giving you a benchmark for future evaluations while helping you track progress. 

Open lines of communication

Lastly, listen – and do it well. Creating forums for people at every level of the business will give you insight and comment you simply can’t get from a survey. 

Combine this qualitative feedback with the quantitative data from your survey and you’ll get a 360-degree picture of how your people are feeling and identify areas that need extra attention. Be sure to add specific questions about the merger or acquisition to your survey.

Such regular evaluations and adjustments will help create a culture of continuous improvement, boosting employee engagement throughout the merger or acquisition process.

If you enjoyed this, read: Company culture: how and why bad HR can bring down a promising merger.

Author Profile Picture
Lisa Hawksworth

Director of Culture and Insights

Read more from Lisa Hawksworth
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