Understanding the Three Post-Merger Mindsets, Part 1


The work team is a focal point for realizing synergies in a merger or acquisition.  Even though success elsewhere in a company influences employees’ sentiments about the combination, evidence from their own work teams matters most.  People see their coworkers either embracing new work methods or resisting them.  And, they regard their team leaders as either enabling or inhibiting their personal paths in the combined organization.  These early team experiences have a substantial influence on enduring impressions—including overall optimism or pessimism—about the combined organization.

Well-functioning work teams help individuals adapt to change.  Work teams provide social support by reducing the level of stress experienced by their members and by buffering them from the physical and psychological consequences.  Moreover, the giving and getting of support is one means whereby team members bond.  Studies find that organizations can expect increased effort on the part of supported employees.

Unlike teams that evolve in the normal course of business, groups of people thrown together in a merger or an alliance do not necessarily know the capabilities and inclinations of members.  The person selected to lead a post-merger, or post-combination, team may not have chosen who is on it and may not know much about the individual contributors.  Conversely, not all team members may have self-selected into this particular team or know much about their new leader.  Thus, effective post-combination teams are built one person at a time.

 The mandate for team leaders is to step back, understand mindsets, and assess the prevailing dynamics that influence performance.  Four general requirements guide effective team leaders:

  1. Understand the emotional states of individual contributors in this phase.
  2. Anticipate sources of tension in building post-merger teams.
  3. Mold a group of individuals into a team.
  4. Be proactive in formal team building.

Understanding Post-Merger Mindsets

When forming post-merger teams, leaders encounter diverse employee mindsets:

  • “The Ready.”  Employees who get the job they wanted or expected in the combined company are usually ready to enlist in the new team.  With worries about their personal fate substantially behind them, they are charged up by the challenges and opportunities of adding real value.  For example, after being acquired by an established manufacturer, employees from a firm with a strong product-development pipeline but inefficient manufacturing and limited distribution were excited by the potential of joining forces with a company possessing these competencies.  These types often are the mainstay of a new team; their positive attitudes can be infectious.  
  • “The Wanting.”  Other team members are found wanting. Perhaps they didn’t get their desired job title or responsibilities, or they’ve been separated from mentors or friends, or their budgets have been slashed.  This is how some manufacturing and distribution team members who retained jobs felt.  Preoccupied with their lower-than-expected status, they wondered if this was a harbinger of a dead-end career.  Plainly, employees with this mindset need more time to sort things out.
  • “The Wrung-Out.”  Finally, there are employees who simply feel wrung out by the combination process. Members of the sales team pretty much retained similar jobs and responsibilities in the combined organization.  Still, they were listless and weary from the ordeal they had survived.  People like this often hold onto the glass-half-empty perspective, locking in on cues that the situation around them has changed for the worse.  Misery loves company as team members complain that the combined organization adds layers between their group and the highest levels of management.  

For those charged with leading a new team, understanding a person’s current emotional state is more difficult than it seems.  Team members who are not close to their new boss may put on a poker face and hide their true feelings.  Some simply cannot verbalize their reasons for persistent discontent.  Others play up to the boss and hide their feelings in a veil of enthusiasm and self-serving flattery.  Part of the leader’s responsibility in forming a new team is to ascertain the mindset of individual members, reenlist them, and help them rededicate themselves to their jobs.  Straightforward one-on-one talks between leader and team member can uncover hidden emotional states.  With hard-to-read employees, involving a human resources professional, trained counselor, or even a trusted peer can open up discussion with a superior.

Sources of Tension in Building New Teams

Team building in a combination is complicated when there are changes in leadership and membership of a team.  Any one of the following factors enhances the likelihood of tension in newly formed teams:

  • A new boss. The appointment of a new boss creates tension as subordinates naturally jockey for influence and visibility.  Conflict is especially likely if a subordinate was expecting to have the new boss’s job, if former peers are placed in a superior-subordinate relationship, or if the new boss comes from one partner to take over a team from the other.
  • New peers. When combinations mix people from the partner companies, they naturally divide into coalitions and exchange confidences with former peers.  This can continue the we-they feelings and force managers to take sides in resolving conflicts.
  • New methods. Members of combined teams not only have to adapt to job-related changes, they also have to learn the politics and protocol of operating with another company.  Predictably, there is a tendency to go with what (and who) you know.  This means that people may have trouble gaining access to the informal social and communication networks of the new organization and are likely to encounter untold problems in simply getting the job done through normal channels.
  • New relationships. Diversity can enhance team creativity and performance, but it takes time to turn what initially appears to be a source of conflict into an improvement.  The feel and flow of relatively homogeneous work teams are disrupted by people from different organizations, cultures, or countries.  This raises tension levels, especially when the differences seem to interfere with work performance.

(to be continued in Part 2)

Photo:  chm.bris.ac.uk

About the Author: Mitchell Lee Marks is a member of the faculty of the College of Business at San Francisco State University and leads the change management consulting firm JoiningForces.org. Over the past 25 years, he has been involved in over 100 mergers and acquisitions as a researcher or advisor. He is the author of six books on organizational change; most recently “Joining Forces: Making One Plus One Equal Three in Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances” with Philip H. Mirvis. Dr. Marks is a member of the Advisory Board of the M&A Leadership Council. He can be reached at [email protected].