Ironic, isn’t it? The moment you most need the support of your people is also when getting it proves most challenging.
Sure enough, only 42 percent of employees remain engaged when they feel you aren’t managing change well. If that sounds like a risk, it’s also an opportunity. Almost double that number remain engaged when they feel you’re managing change effectively.
We’ve seen this firsthand. Our employee engagement companies recently came together when Reward Gateway acquired Brand Integrity. So who better to offer insight into engaging employees during an M&A than an employee engagement organization? After all, if we can’t get this right, then our people may as well be cobbler’s children.
Here’s what we learned along the way that can help you lead your organization’s employee engagement efforts during an M&A.
“I Love Change!”
… said no one ever. The reality is that change is uncomfortable for most people. (Yes, us too.) The worst thing you can do as a leader is pretending that change doesn’t cause anxiety and stress. Rather, engaging employees during an M&A demands acknowledging the emotional aspects of change.
If you begin doing this when you start your M&A process, you’re already too late. Recognizing the importance of your employees’ feelings must start long before an M&A. And sure enough, at both of our organizations, we have a history of building mutual respect with our people and making sure everyone feels connected to our purpose, mission, and values. In other words, the trust that an M&A requires today will always be based on what you did yesterday.
At its core, this means: Do not lie to your people. Ever. Everyone understands that uncertainty inherently plagues M&As, so admit when you don’t know something or when you aren’t yet able to reveal details. And please — please! — don’t try to comfort employees with false platitudes like, “Don’t worry. Nothing will change.” Everything will always change.
Change management is really just … management. Telling people not to be concerned can inadvertently invalidate their feelings and sow deeper seeds of discomfort and discontent.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
Should we say it a fourth time? Simply put, you can’t foster employee engagement unless you place communication at the core. That means communicating as transparently as possible before, during, and after an M&A.
Furthermore, don’t focus on what is happening at the expense of explaining the why. People need to comprehend more than just process. They need to know the reason behind your decisions if you expect them to buy into your strategy.
Also keep in mind that if employees aren’t getting the story from you, they will use leftover ambiguity to create their own narratives, which can breed distrust as rumors mushroom inside and outside your organization. That’s why it’s important to maintain ongoing messaging in multiple formats and channels, from emails and videos to town halls and one-on-ones.
(Should we say it a fifth time?)
Reward Gateway and Brand Integrity are both very people-centric companies whose missions are to make the world a better place to work. That’s helped us a great deal in coming together. But how did we know we were culturally aligned?
Obviously, any business can write anything about culture on its website — but we all know that reality can be very different. That’s why we examined Glassdoor reviews. We looked at what each of our companies did, not just what we said. Plus, our leadership teams sat in a room for five hours talking about our deepest beliefs about our organizations and beyond.
Granted, cultures of two organizations may not always align as well as ours did. But you aren’t looking for cultural fit so much as cultural add — that is, what can each company’s employees and culture add to each other to come out stronger at the other end of the equation? Highlighting such diversity can help employees focus less on the potential dilution of their existing culture and more on the benefits of enhancing it.
Sure, employees will still have to adapt to each other, but again, this is a challenge as much as an opportunity. At both our companies, we viewed such adjustments as prime ways to uphold and promote our values around diversity.
In Mergers and Acquisitions: Managing Culture and Human Resources, authors Günter K. Stahl and Mark E. Mendenhall write that the “cultural and psychological sides of M&A are often overshadowed by the financial side.” Obviously, money issues matter, but you mustn’t overlook the importance of human elements. People’s lives are changing. Acknowledge that. Don’t just recite facts and numbers to connect with their minds — be sure to listen to and touch their hearts.
Ultimately, people want to be heard. Indeed, Aon Hewitt found that involvement in decision-making is the top driver of engagement during M&As. So give employees control and autonomy where feasible, particularly when it comes to the tools and resources they need to perform their jobs.
At the same time, listening to your people also means reminding them of their obligations during an M&A. Communication should go both ways, so encourage employees to provide feedback and raise concerns.
You should also recognize people during what is a difficult time of change. Employees need to feel appreciated as they make sacrifices, change behaviors, and manage their own discomfort as part of a collective mission to succeed.
Finally, even though we recently completed the acquisition, it’s not as if we completed our engagement efforts around it. That’s because employee engagement must be an ongoing effort. It’s not a project that has a beginning and an end. So today, just as we’ve always done, we continue to connect people to purpose, mission, and values, and demonstrate that we care about our people. Because in the end, if people feel like you have their backs, they will have yours.