• Chau Woeste, Partner |
  • Sophie Chidley, Manager |
4 min read

Chau Woeste and Sophie Chidley explain why it’s time to move on from the concept of cultural integration to cultural assimilation

It’s never easy bringing together two groups of employees with different histories and different ways of working. The approach you take can have a huge impact on whether you get the full value from a deal. After all, in many cases, it’s the people, their knowledge and their relationships that hold the deal value.

Think about a small tech start-up that has been purchased by a larger organisation. The employees from the start-up are likely to operate in a very different way to those at the larger company and, for many that way of working, that culture, is what attracted them to the start up in the first place. Get the cultural dimension wrong and you could suffer a culture clash that impacts productivity and sees the value of your acquisition walk out the door with the talent.

So, how can you tackle the cultural dimension, transition employees successfully and protect deal value?

Think cultural assimilation not integration

For decades, deal and HR teams have been chasing the silver bullet of cultural integration. That has typically involved running a diagnostic across a number of different dimensions, such as decision making, approach to reward and appetite for risk, to understand the best of both worlds, explore any misalignment between cultures and assess how these can be addressed. This is often then aligned with leaders and factored into the communications plan for the deal, but the practical ‘so what’ is missing.

That’s why we encourage our clients to focus instead on the idea of cultural assimilation. How do you assimilate people to the new culture, and bring them across in a way which ensures they are ready to perform their job on Day 1 (deal close). We’re not talking here about the practical side of making sure employees have the right tools to do their job, although that’s clearly important and has an impact on an employee’s experience. There is a human and psychological side to this. It’s key to recognise that we’re dealing with human beings, and human beings value symbolism and being part of ‘a tribe’. Cultural assimilation is about helping your new people to ‘say goodbye to yesterday and hello to tomorrow’, to practically and emotionally transition to the new tribe, and making them feel like they belong. It’s about providing a great employee experience and accelerating the emotional transition.

Acknowledge the past, embrace the future

What won’t provide you with a smooth transition or a great employee experience, is seeking to break with the past completely. That is likely to be badly received and result in a feeling of ‘them and us’. It’s important to acknowledge the achievements of the past, which, after all, are the achievements that have brought you to this point. Everyone should be proud of that and be given an opportunity to celebrate it.

Encouraging that celebration of the past will show your new employees that they are valued. But, don’t linger on it. It’s important to sell them a future with you, to show them that ‘new’ and ‘different’ aren’t things to be feared but embraced.

It’s the combination of heritage and future that shapes the employee experience during a merger or acquisition. It helps employees mourn and say goodbye to yesterday and hello to tomorrow. 

Provide a sense of community

There’s no doubt that moving from one business to another during a merger can be emotionally draining for employees and they are going to have lots of questions and concerns. Communicating with them openly and honestly is always important – and will help sell your cultural values. Where you can have a real impact, though, is through helping them gain a new sense of community and belonging.

That might seem challenging today, when social interaction is pretty much limited to a Teams call, but many people joining you will be comfortable (and may even prefer!)  using social networks to create connections and communities. So, rather than simply setting up an online hub for employee manuals and information, look at how you can use social tools to deliver a great employee experience to new starters, sell your culture and show that you are a future-focused business.

We have been involved in a number of projects where we’ve set up a digital engagement platform for employees joining a company following a merger or acquisition. These provide a forum where employees can discuss the past, share experiences, and where they can ask questions and start to build bonds with their new teams. 

Excite them – it’s a new world

Employees will be more open to cultural assimilation if they see a future that excites them. Your business leaders and people managers have a vital role to play in this. They are the ones who need to be demonstrating your values in how they lead their teams and who provide a bridge between the past, present and future. Acknowledging what’s worked in the past and exciting people about their future prospects is important. After all, employees often leave their manager not the company.

Ultimately, the goal should be to shape the employee experience in such a way that employees say that, even in the absence of the deal, they would have chosen to join the organisation. To do that, you need to help them join your tribe.

We would love to hear from you about your challenges and successes on culture change following and acquisition. Get in touch if you’d like to discuss any of the points raised or how we can support your integration.