December 10, 2019

How a slow and steady approach to blending teams can prevent the trap of “us vs. them”

By Nancy Appelquist, Director of Operations 

You know the aggravation brought on by that dreaded sign: “Right lane closed 1 mile ahead. Merge left.”

Rule followers get over to the left lane immediately. But then they’re stuck at the back of a line that’s barely moving, resentful of the cars zooming by with no regard for the signs telling them to merge. Those cars racing to the front are the “sorry not sorry” crowd—staying in the fast lane as long as possible before cutting in front of another driver to merge.

Studies have shown the most efficient way to merge lanes of traffic is an approach that doesn’t come naturally to most drivers. It’s the zipper merge, where both sides stay in their original lane and move at a slow but steady pace until the lane closes, then each side takes turns merging into a single lane that continues forward seamlessly as one line of traffic.

You go, then I go. That’s how the zipper merge works.

This makes me think of the conflicts in business when leaders are trying to blend two or more very different cultures. When clashes occur, it often becomes the root of an organization’s demise. Whether it’s caused by the everyday conflict when people of differing viewpoints work together under the same roof or a larger-scale change like a merger, integrating cultures is an issue that needs serious attention.

It Could Happen to You

Just like road construction and lane closures, workplace changes can be inconvenient and unwelcome; and without a methodical approach and strategic planning, they may end in chaos or catastrophe. When you’re in the midst of change and people around you aren’t doing what you think they should be doing, a line is drawn. One side is pitted against the other. Us vs. them.

Culture clash doesn’t only occur in mergers and acquisitions. Internal teams working together across geographies can experience cultural mismatches, as there can be a stark contrast between two geographies, even in the United States; and it’s amplified if the locations are in different countries.

Cultural tension also can erupt as generational gaps evolve in your organization…senior personnel move closer to retirement, younger employees move up the ladder, and as these roles interact there can be discontent stemming from conflicting values, work ethics, and communication styles among the various age groups.

The friction created by these dynamics can have detrimental consequences. You can have productivity lags caused by confusion over two sides following different processes and work styles.

Stress can create bad vibes that permeate the organization—when change feels unfair to people, it feeds resentment and solidifies the us vs. them mentality. (In merging traffic, these are the people straddling lanes to prevent other cars from zooming by and getting what they perceive as a better place in line.)

And another consequence is turnover. If employees are unhappy or worried about what’s ahead, they’re likely to bail out at the first exit they find.

When the Odds Are Not in Your Favor…What Can You Do?

The fact is most mergers do fail, and a high percentage of the time it’s because not enough effort was put into strategically planning for a successful integration, so the cultures never mesh.

A June 2019 article in Forbes states, “According to Harvard Business Review, between 70% and 90% of mergers and acquisitions fail. It’s a shocking number, and the one thing all have in common is people. Mergers and acquisitions fail more often than not because key people leave, teams don’t get along or demotivation sets into the company being acquired.”

The tricky thing about culture issues is that they easily go unnoticed—everything looks great on paper, but negativity beneath the surface is slowly eroding the foundation. Before you know it there’s irreversible damage.

I had the opportunity to witness first-hand a clash of cultures bring down the American Home Products and Monsanto merger in 1998. This was pretty early in my career, and even as a young professional new to the industry, it was evident to me this combination was doomed from the beginning. It originated with a power struggle at the very top, but the failure to yield went down through every layer of the organization. One side was very “old school” and formal, while the other had a very casual and laid-back work environment. It was like trying to mix oil and water—you can try stirring them together, but as the mixture settles down the two sides will separate again.

The big ones get a lot of attention, but smaller-scale mergers can be thwarted by the same issues. The scale may be smaller, but the problems are still the same—with the common thread being people. I would argue the smaller deals can be even more challenging, because they feel even more personal. You could be joining forces with a direct competitor with whom you have a turbulent history. Or you could be consolidating two of your own locations in rivaling communities—and it’s got everyone thinking, “how am I supposed to work with them?”

Studies have shown the zipper merge can reduce traffic backup by 40%. Bringing two lanes into one in an orderly, methodical fashion. Everyone takes a turn and moves into place in the right sequence, then the line moves forward smoothly as one unit. If someone goes out of order, you have disgruntled drivers; or worse, a crash on the highway.

If conditions are favorable and everyone is following the plan in a business scenario, blending cultures goes smoothly. But it takes effort and deliberate actions—it won’t just happen on its own. Here are some rules of thumb:

Address the cultural integration earlier than you think you need to.

Typically, in the case of a merger or consolidation of some form, if any sort of cultural evaluation is done at all, it’s completed after the deal is signed. But by then it’s often too late. The proverbial us vs. them is already in place.

Start planning as early as possible so you can take time to do it right. In fact, begin the integration before the deal is signed to improve your chances for success. Take time to assess all the dynamics and processes at play so you can identify the areas most likely to clash. After that, prepare and then integrate when both sides are ready.

You might be surprised about what people are worried about. Ask stakeholders from both groups how they would describe their current culture, what they like best about it and what parts they hope will go away with a fresh start. It’s helpful to hear feedback like, “I heard the other company has free coffee – that would be awesome. But I hope with the merger we can figure out a better way to conduct sales forecasting.”

Remember you’re dealing with real people with real emotions…and decisions you make are directly impacting their lives.

Show compassion. Observe what the reactions are and gauge emotions. It’s a stressful time for everyone impacted, so one of the first tasks is to help employees feel they have control of the situation. People respond emotionally if they feel the change is being forced on them or the “old way” is being taken away.

Have patience but be persistent. There will be roadblocks and missteps. Learn from them and move on.

Take time necessary to get everyone on the same page before expecting them to work well together.

Taking the best of both worlds seems like the right compromise, but that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Habits are hard to break, which is one of the reasons why blending cultures is impossible without forethought. Communicate incessantly. Then communicate some more. Ask and listen to what people need to feel more in control. Be clear about expectations and help everyone understand the bigger picture of why the changes need to happen. Keep people on the right track by constantly reinforcing what needs to be done and how.

This could require training on new processes so people understand their roles and are willing to step outside their lane and collaborate as a new united team.

We could spend all day talking about failed mergers and acquisitions in the ag industry. We’ve all seen colossal failures in high profile deals—two independently successful entities with ample resources that seemed like a perfect match, only to watch them crash and burn. Entira has had front row seats to see when it was done very, very wrong, but we’ve also been there when it was done right.

Many traffic accidents occur when you’ve got two lanes operating at different speeds and the drivers have different motives and ideas about what should happen, and this can happen to businesses as well. When everyone is moving at a consistent pace in the same direction, you’re more likely to avoid disaster when bringing cultures together.

Like the zipper merge, a steady and methodical approach will get both sides moving at the same pace more quickly. It may feel like an eternity getting there, but if you take the time to do it right the pace will pick up once the lanes come together.

To talk more about culture clash and how those dynamics may be affecting your organization, contact Nancy Appelquist at 845.544.1985 or nappelquist@entira.net.