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Nine recommendations from workers living through a merger

18 May 2020 By Dr Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort

New research shows an employee-centric approach can help mitigate the negative psychological consequences of change, explains Dr Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort 

Most mergers fail to deliver the intended benefits – and it is usually the people element that derails things. Many organisational change initiatives aimed at transformation, such as restructures, spin-offs, mergers and acquisitions, and culture change initiatives are associated with a range of negative psychological consequences. Job satisfaction decreases, collaboration and trust between colleagues declines and it’s common to see an increase in conflict, discrimination, stress and employee turnover.

All these factors have significant implications for leaders and for HR in particular. So what can practitioners do to help employees and their organisations as they struggle to navigate the complex changes associated with major change initiatives?

New research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education suggests that taking an employee-centric approach to change management is one of the best ways to ensure the crucial soft elements are planned for and delivered. The study explored the personal journey of employees living through the first four years of a merger between professional services organisations. The findings suggest transformation is a cyclical process and there are three phases of employee experience leaders need to consider. These cycles broadly relate to three key questions workers were constantly asking themselves throughout the merger: ‘Is this a place I want to stay in, survive in and thrive in?’ 

Not surprisingly, business leaders often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of major change initiatives, and the depth of emotions these create within themselves and those they are responsible for. Maybe because of this, they often focus on the ‘hard elements’ of change management, seeking to establish some control over systems, structures or processes. However, failing to focus on the human side of change will very often undermine even the best laid plans. I believe it falls to HR to take the lead in steering change management initiatives towards a more balanced focus between people and task-related activities

The report, Lessons leaders can learn from those living through change, provides nine key themes drawn from research and the advice and experiences shared by employees during the merger process:

  • Respect the past
  • Create opportunities for staff to talk to each other, and to leaders, to help them make sense of the changes
  • Focus on the how and the what
  • Deal well with emotions
  • Ensure employees feel valued, heard and safe
  • Build and maintain employee and organisational resilience
  • Manage employee engagement and career choices
  • Establish psychological safety to help staff reconnect with their own value, a new purpose and each other
  • Monitor and maintain morale and commitment

By focusing on each of these themes in turn, HR can help the business develop appropriate strategies to respond to the needs of employees and mitigate known pain points. Given that people typically cycle between the three phases of the employee experience in a messy and unpredictable manner, it is important that people managers are mindful and responsive to what is happening in the moment.

The research suggests leaders need to put themselves in employees’ shoes and try to understand and appreciate the significance of the journey people are going through. HR can take the lead in ensuring leaders develop and role-model the interpersonal skills and behaviours needed to support employees as they transition through the change, thereby reducing the risk of diminished morale, performance, engagement and commitment.

Last but not the least, major change initiatives present HR with a real opportunity to question, challenge and improve some of the broader cultural and organisational practices and procedures present within the business. By adopting an employee-centric perspective, and actively gathering feedback and insight from those living through change, HR will be able to provide valuable feedback to the upper echelons of power about the potential barriers and pitfalls that could derail change initiatives. The profession has an important role to play in shaping the strategic change dialogue within the business and helping identify the leadership skills that need to be developed if managers are to help their people make sense of major changes. 

Stepping up to this challenge, however, will require HR to adopt a more proactive and strategic role within the change process, which in turn requires HR as a function to establish and demonstrate trust across boundaries and throughout the hierarchical levels of the organisation.

Dr Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort is professor of OD change and leadership at Hult Ashridge Executive Education

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