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5 Common Employee Emotions to Navigate During Mergers and Acquisitions

/ 8.23.17

Years ago, I was hired to help a client create and execute an engagement and internal brand strategy after a multi-company acquisition. I was optimistic – getting a leadership team to understand the impact of mergers and acquisition on employees and commit to prioritizing the employee experience during change is usually half the battle! But my optimism quickly faded when I met the entire executive team onsite to kick-off their initiative. Each executive proudly introduced themselves by the name of their previous company, as if an acquisition never took place. And as if their words didn’t make their feelings clear enough, each slammed down a unique business card. How are leaders supposed to align and engage their employees during a merger or acquisition when they themselves appear divided and unwilling to accept the change? 

 

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Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us…

 

Their reaction wasn’t surprising, however. We’re imperfect beings, fueled by emotions and our own personal agenda. It’s common to see this kind of posturing when cultures collide during mergers and acquisitions (M&A). As we dug deeper, we found that it wasn’t just the c-suite dealing with emotions that created an unhealthy environment and disengagement; employees throughout all levels of the organization experienced a host of feelings that needed to be addressed.

 

But instead of considering the impact of mergers and acquisitions on employees and developing an employee engagement strategy that accounted for the unique emotions they might experience, the leaders were focused solely on items like financial projections, org charts, and contracts, and gave little thought to the emotional needs of their people. (It’s no wonder that the majority of M&As fail to meet their long-term financial goals.)

 

Your merger or acquisition will only go as far as your people will take it. So it’s essential to consider and address the impact it will have on employees. To help, we’ve identified a few common emotions and corresponding strategies to keep in mind as you aim to engage your workforce during a merger or acquisition.

 

Anxiety

The announcement of most mergers and acquisitions are kept quiet until contracts are signed and deals are final. So it’s hard for employees to mentally prepare for the change. And then, the massive – and abrupt – disruption from the norm puts people on edge, creating a flood of questions. “What else don’t I know?” “Is my job safe?” “Who are my allies?” They crave stability but are engulfed by a cloud of uncertainty, fear, and rumors. Sounds like a hard environment to work in, right?

 

Why you should care: Fear makes people do crazy things. Concerned employees might lose productivity, stress out, or even jump ship. All these things negatively impact culture, performance, and even an employee’s physical and mental health.

 

Your strategy: You’ve heard it a million times before… communicate, communicate, communicate! When it comes to mergers and acquisitions, don’t just focus on frequency. Think about your unique audiences and how you need to cater to them. Is a living and breathing FAQ document best for your managers as they field a growing list of questions? Should your employees receive a timeline with milestones and updates so they feel “in-the-know”? Is something that communicates the “why” behind change best for your first company-wide message? Your internal communication plan should be multi-tiered and intentional to add clarity and ease worry. Think strategically about what each audience needs to hear and how it would be best delivered. And as time goes on, continue listening to employees and address any new questions or concerns that pop up along the way. 

 

Selfishness

For many employees, a merger or acquisition signals the need to look out for oneself. It’s a common coping strategy when individuals feel that their status might be threatened or uncertainty surrounds their future. In the interest of personal gain and self-preservation, employees go heads-down into their own work with little regard for others.

 

Why you should care: Being able to depend on your teammates and believing that your coworkers will go the extra mile significantly impacts everyone’s engagement. Being hyper-focused on “oneself” cripples essential team dynamics, consequentially bringing productivity to a halt. Also, if there are new employees being added to the team, egos can get in the way of new hires becoming fully integrated into business operations. 

           

Your strategy: You can’t keep individuals from positioning themselves to gain the upper hand, but you can fight a wave of selfishness with relationship building. Create opportunities for your team to collaborate and remember that they are part of a whole. Brainstorm some non-work activities outside of the office; the change of scenery can help lower tensions and remind people that their teammates are human and need their support. Outings that require teams to problem solve and collaborate — like escape rooms or improv workshops — can be especially helpful to build a collaborative spirit. Here are a few team building ideas to get your started. 

 

Grief

Employees are sometimes asked to part ways with something during a merger or acquisition. Their friends may leave the company, the culture they came to know and love could rapidly dissolve, or their own job role could change overnight. Considering the fact that we spend a significant amount of our lives at work, it’s understandable that these changes can really impact your employees psychological health, both in the office and at home.

 

Why you should care: The emotions that one goes through when mourning include denial, anger, sadness, loneliness, etc. Although there’s no funeral to attend, a similar group of emotions can run the course for some employees who are asked to part ways with meaningful parts of their work identities. Getting excited about the future vision and remaining engaged with their work can be hard.

 

Your strategy: Be human in your communication approach, and know that it may take some time for employees to fully accept the change. It’s okay to drive excitement about the merger or acquisition, but be sensitive to the fact that some employees are genuinely feeling a sense of loss. Practically speaking, acknowledge employees’ feelings and be frank when you address the impact the merger or acquisition will have on employees. Celebrate what’s been accomplished and how you arrived where you are. For example, about a month after a merger, one client held a “retirement” party for the old logo. It might seem silly, but memories were shared and employees had that moment they needed to say goodbye before moving on.

 

Pride

Usually one entity is more dominant than the other when an acquisition takes place. This can lead people to believe there are  “winners” and “losers.” In this case, pride and superiority can easily be birthed among those who are a part of the acquiring organization.

 

Why you should care: Outside of profit and market share, the desired outcome of a merger or acquisition is to build one unified culture. Pride from the “old regime” can create division and stifle learning opportunities that keep your culture from coming together. When individuals operate pridefully, they hoard knowledge and become condescending toward other team members. This means that essential job training and onboarding could take months longer than it should.

 

Your strategy: Make champions out of those who hold great knowledge and are proud of the brand you wish to grow. Latch onto your biggest advocates who have reason to be prideful and have them contribute as mentors or teachers to the new group of employees coming on board. Their pride has to be channeled positively; this not only creates several measurable touch points for them to share their knowledge, but it also turns potential office bullies into leaders and change agents.

 

Excitement

Not all emotions around mergers or acquisitions are negative. Consider how you manage the emotions of those employees who are thrilled about the change. Some employees loathe change while others will be motivated as they see the potential that lies ahead.

 

Why you should care: It’s inevitable – there are going to be laggards and people that are hesitant or downright resistant to the changes that come with a merger or acquisition. At the same time, questions are going to fly and managers can’t fill all the gaps. You need to inject accurate information and positivity throughout your workforce. Employees who are excited can serve as your best chance to get as many employees on board as possible.

 

Your strategy: Ask for task force volunteers or ask your managers if they’d nominate anyone on their team who would be a good ambassador for the change. Work by department and business unit to fill the gaps between employees, managers, and leadership.

 

We know that mergers and acquisitions will continue to be a key strategy for companies looking to grow and attain greater market share. As you build your own employee engagement strategy during a merger or acquisition, it’s your empathy for what people are feeling that will breed the positivity needed to work through hard changes. Remembering to be human during these times could be the difference between failure and success.

 

Want help communicating this big change? Download our free change management communication templates below. 

 

Ebook Download: 5 Essential Change Management Templates

 

 

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