There’s a lot to consider when you are expanding through mergers or acquisitions: new premises, blending teams, induction of new staff, logos, public relations announcements, redundancies.
Then there’s the merging of tribes. The new ones huddle in one corner while the old ones sulk and brood in another. Encounters result in vicious sniping, irate cackling, and aggressive stand offs. Such is the experience of introducing newbies to the flock.
I’m talking chooks, of course. Chicken pecking order is a well-known phenomenon. We’ve even adapted ‘pecking order’ and ‘henpecked’ as expressions of human behaviour.
But people aren’t chooks. When they are threatened with a change like a merger, however, people revert to more primitive instincts. They become protective of their territory and wary of newcomers.
Woe unto the business leaders who ignore tribal conflict in their merger plans!
Growth is exciting and in invigorating, and yet without a strong culture change management plan in place, all good intentions turn to poop swung widely in a leaky sock.
A merger or takeover threatens the basic stabilising forces in an organisation’s culture: the individual’s attachment to the tribal identity.
The individual, both existing member and new arrival, wonders:
- Will I belong?
- What is my role and purpose and will it suit my talents and abilities?
- Will I like and be liked by my new team?
- Will I be valued and appreciated in my new team?
So what is a leader to do to avert culture clashes and keep the feathers from flying?
Define the tribe
Start with why: Explain purpose and ethos of the company. Engagement starts when team members embrace and support the reason for their work and can see how their work supports the bigger picture.
Describe the what: This includes the values it espouses and the behaviours that support that culture. Example. ‘Honesty’ might be a company value. This is expressed in behaviour through weekly meetings where everyone is invited to share learning and successes of the week.
Build tribe loyalty
Welcome the new tribe members:
Develop a strong induction program for the newcomers. This needs to include:
- Meeting all staff. This is to help the newbies make sense if the formal and informal roles and power dynamics.
- Acknowledge value of newcomers and their experience. They may be new to your company, but not new to the world! Valuing their contribution by recognising experience helps build trust and loyalty in newcomers.
- Implement a rite of passage such as a welcome ceremony, like the ubiquitous afternoon tea.
- Go above and beyond with a lovely welcome package: flowers, wine, or hamper is a good message to show they are valued and wanted!
Explain tribe rules
This is the official and unofficial rules of ‘how things are done around here’. A short laundry list includes:
- Policy outlines for pay, attendance, holidays, working hours, dress code.
- Introduction to the computer network and systems, office security, office layout.
- And most importantly – Examples of what NOT to do and where people have gotten into trouble unwittingly beforehand.
Brand the tribe
Getting a hot poker and stamping the company logo on your staff rumps may be a bit extreme. There is nothing new however in uniting groups around cultural symbols: think football colours of jerseys, country flags, banners (a la game of Thrones).
Here are some ideas for branding your tribe that are affordable and easy: shirts, business cards, business card holders, mugs, website profiles, mouse pads, pens. The options are endless! And as cheesy as it may seem, owning a company business card or pen really cements the message of ‘I belong’.
Unite the tribe
Include a whole of tribe activity to reiterate organisation purpose and values and to set expectations as a new collective. This could be a lunch out, an outdoor soccer game, a movie night, a BBQ.
Strengthen the tribe
Invest in tribe managers and leaders: Tribe culture is honed and cemented by the managers. Their skill in liaising between micro-tribes in the organisation, translating vision and mission into actionable plans, and supporting their work unit will make or break a company’s culture.
Ensure team leaders have strong management skills: delegation, project management, coaching, effective feedback, crucial conversations. Successful organisations with enviable cultures invest in their management and leadership.
Complacency here, especially in times of expansion and mergers, is the secret rot that will undo all best laid plans.
Reinforce culture through tribal rituals
Culture needs constant attention and nurturing. There is value in the Thursday night drinks, in the employee of the month awards, of ringing the success bell when a target is reached. These become part of company tradition and lore, those deep ties that bind and strengthen that sense of belonging.
Last word: don’t expect the culture to stay the same, or just a bigger version of what it is now.
Every new arrival and every departure sends ripples – good or evil – through the tribe cultural vibe. It takes effort and vigilance to maintain a robust company culture – through cultural values and norms embedded in systems and policies through to the Monday morning cuppa and Friday afternoon wine and cheese. Keep culture foremost and integral to your overall strategy and you’ll not only achieve great results, you and your team will likely enjoy the process too.
Life is too short for Monday-itis!