The routine of unplugging and rolling up my computer’s power cable with greater methodical precision that normal gives me a few seconds to reflect. In the conference room the used name tents, post-its, and empty water bottles linger with me. We all witnessed the positive impact of the engagement session. The blue letters on the white board reflects the reason a new team of senior leaders came together after a recent merger. It reads “move away from US and THEM – start building WE”.
As I reflect on the learnings from various programmes aimed at improving integration, the following questions run through my mind “what contributes to the building of unified, integrated teams and are there any component that we are underestimating?”
This desire for greater integration has become the stated objective of many consulting assignments. The need for successful integration has escalated in the last two decades. Mostly as a result of the increased rate of mergers, re-structures, take-overs in the corporate world. In 2018, the value of Mergers and Acquisitions in the USA valued more than $2.72 trillion across 13,575 deals.
How do you build a unified leadership team when people come from different organisational cultures, companies, regions and backgrounds?
Our brains use cognitive shortcuts to make sense of our increasingly complicated world, and one way to deal with the complexity of mergers, restructures, and amalgamations, is to lump people into boxes or categories. And people are inclined to view their own subgroup—whether it’s their function, their unit, region, or culture—more positively than others. This unconscious habit often creates tension and hinders integration and collaboration. This explains why different leadership teams view each other with skepticism and apprehension.
Often boards and companies respond to the need for integration by taking the “us and them teams” to drinks or dinner in an effort to unite the team, only to find the two groups sitting at opposite ends of the table.
So, if drinks are not the answer, what is?
Here is my take on three factors which are underestimated keys to support an integration initiative
There are enabling conditions that will create the environment where people from different functions, cultures, or organizations can start to experience a connection.
Time and space contribute to such an environment. Creating a space where conversations can flow with ease, requires freedom from internal urgency and pressure. Like Nancy Kline (in Time to Think) states, “it is the absence of tension or rush that allows the human mind to broaden and reach.” An environment that allows people to be present is natural. However, it is rare. This time has been squeezed out of our lives and organisations by inferior ways of treating each other.
Therefore, companies need to create opportunities where people can be fully present with another and ideally experience a remoteness from everyday life and pressures. This implies dialogues with an absence of analysis, expert opinions and mastery – where people give each other attention. Often the outcome of these conversation surprises all parties and could never have been predicted.
Off-site meetings often assist in creating such a space and remoteness that invites greater connection. The aim is to build trust and provide occasions for informal social interaction, where the new team can get to know each other not just as professionals, but as human beings.
Equal access to key information
Giving leaders equal access to critical company information levels the playing field. This sends the message that all members of the team are trusted. This is often as simple as ensuring that the CEO shares the vision with complete openness and answered questions with vulnerability to all relevant parties at the same time. This ensures that nobody had an unintended bias by having more access to strategic information.
After all, shared knowledge is the cornerstone of effective collaboration; it gives the whole group the same frame of reference and ensures the group interpret situations and decisions correctly – thereby reducing assumptions and apprehension. Companies need to resist the urge to hide information based on the assumption that people will mishandle it.
I recommend this tactic to ensure open and equal communication:
Try adding a “what is in the grapevine” agenda item to meetings as a fun, informal way for people to share company information they have heard so you can either confirm it, demystify or debunk a rumour.
Asking people that do not know each other to collaborate on sensitive topics after a merger or restructure can be stressful. Collaboration should be a natural first step of a creative process and definitely not nerve-racking. It should be a creative dialogue that distills traditional practices such as the noble brainstorm or SWOT, down to their purest form – conversation.
Therefore, the third contributing factor is the creation of collaboration experiences for the new group; experiences where team members that does not know each other can engage in purposeful conversations. This creates the platform to experience informally and practically what productive collaboration feels like. Collaboration becomes a “lived experience” even though the process has been staged. We know that teaching must show or bring forth its object, rather than simply interpret or tell about it.
Giving a new team safe assignments with which to practice collaboration can improve their level of conversations, association, increase trust and reduce possible anxiety.
It would be a bonus if you could add some zest to the process by making the initial collaboration fun!
The three factors above create a space where THEY can turn towards a new, WE.
With reference to The Neuroscience of Trust by Paul J. Za in the January/February 2017 issue (pp.84–90) of Harvard Business Review
The Production of Presence by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht Stanford University 2004.
Forbes – The 5 Biggest Trends In Mergers & Acquisitions For 2019 with reference to Mergermarket data.