Change doesn’t have to be scary (Guest commentary)

5 ways to get employees on board during mergers, reorganizations

Companies are bought and sold at a dizzying rate and reorganizations happen like clockwork. These changes are usually made with the best of intentions but don’t always end up with the intended results. That’s because leaders pay attention to the logical aspects of the process (the business case) but not nearly enough attention to the psychological aspects. So just how do we get people to enthusiastically embrace this new entity or new way of doing business? Here are five ways to meet this challenge.

1. Accept that, in the eyes of employees, a merger of equals rarely occurs. The standard line from senior management is “there are no winners or losers” when two organizations come together. Employees see it differently. They notice which name the new company adopts and how many “legacy” executives from each company end up in similar roles on the new executive team. Employees keep score, and their initial feelings often depend on their final tally.

As a leader, rather than arguing this point, you are much better off accepting it and then developing strategies and tactics to offset negative perceptions. As much as possible, balance the new team with executives from both legacy companies. Certainly, the “best person for the job” should always be the primary criteria, but the perception that both sides have representation is also important.

When meeting with employee groups, acknowledge the desire to make it a merger of equals, but that you understand some may be skeptical and that’s okay. Ask them to judge the process based on what they see, not what they pick up through the rumour mill. Let them know the organization will promote and support employees based on skill set and attitude going forward, regardless of which group they were affiliated with originally. By doing this, you will begin setting expectations and reaching those who are willing to give this change a shot, if properly led.

2. Get to know new people. It’s easy to stick with the people you know, but the best executives make a point of getting to know the talents, skill sets and personalities of those coming in from the new organization. You never know where hidden talent may lie, and it’s up to you to find it. Don’t rely on rumour, individual reputations or other HR colleagues. Spend face-to-face time with potentially key people inside and outside the office. Make assessments based on direct experience as much as possible.

3. Post-merger, pay attention to the psychological, not just the logical, aspects of change. Pre-merger activity is filled with logical analysis. Everything from geographies, facilities, technical expertise, market share and supply-chain logistics are gone over with a fine-tooth comb. Often, the soft side of the deal — culture and people — gets short shrift. After all, it’s hard to put stuff like that on a spreadsheet. “If you can’t graph it, you can’t analyse it,” the thinking seems to go.

But all of the finely honed analysis will come to naught if you don’t have people act in accordance with the logical assumptions once the deal goes through. Ignore the soft side of the deal and an organization runs the risk of watching its logical plans sink into a psychological swamp, swallowed up by employee fear and resistance.

To avoid this, actively involve people in making the change happen as much as possible. If they are busy in meaningful activity around executing the change, they won’t have time to worry or complain about it.

4. Share the good and the bad. This point is so basic it’s often overlooked. Leaders assume people will naturally see the inherent benefits of change, or they will emphasize aspects employees care little about. To tout the benefits of the change to stockholders is all well and good, but it does little to calm the fears of employees.

Make sure you can clearly and easily articulate how benefits will grow for those employees who embrace the change. At the same time, be honest about the potential downside: If the change will result in some pain and sacrifice (loss of jobs, positions or a change in geography) be upfront about it.

Early on in any change process, the same question is paramount for employees: “What is this change all about and how will it impact me?” Until those questions are adequately answered, anything else will be tuned out or, worse, misinterpreted.

5. Passion plus patience equals long-term success. It’s normal for senior executives in the power seats, those actively involved in making decisions up and down the line, to feel more passionate about change. After all, they have been actively involved from the get go, can see the benefits and how the change can work long-term and feel personally invested.

But everyone else can feel as if they are along for the ride, on a journey they did not ask for nor necessarily agree with. They may have heard the rumours but felt powerless up until now to do anything about them.

Let patience be your guide. If you follow some of the steps outlined above — get people involved in the change, tell the truth about where you are headed, why you are going there, and ask for their help along the way — most will get on board.

Gary Bradt is a Summerfield, N.C.-based speaker, who addresses corporate audiences on the issue of change and success, and author of The Ring in the Rubble: Dig Through Change and Find Your Next Golden Opportunity. For more information visit www.TheRingInTheRubble.com.

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