The months between the announcement and close of a merger can be gut-wrenching for an acquired organization. Uncertainty reigns, tensions run high, and employees feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster.
The ambiguity can really tax people. But, the situation is manageable if you understand and adhere to six basic principles:
1. Expect surprises.
The period between announcement and close is consumed with planning activities, but anticipate that some unplanned things will occur. It’s almost inevitable that some people will leave, even if you hoped they wouldn’t. Some press will probably be negative.
And there may be some delays in getting the deal to close. All this is par for the course. After all, if merging were easy, everyone would do it. It takes perseverance to lead people through the months of uncertainty that every combination creates. Don’t lose confidence in a strategically sound merger just because of the emotional highs and lows that inevitably occur pre-close.
2. Help people yield to uncertainty.
As managers, that may sound counter-intuitive. After all, when there’s a problem, managers are supposed to fix it . . . right? Well, not when it comes to uncertainty. The fact is, you can’t always directly resolve uncertainty. Sometimes, only time or decisions outside your control can bring uncertainty to an end. So often when it comes to uncertainty, the best solution is to model how to tolerate it. Be patient with it. Let the future unfold. And participate in that unfolding with curiosity and optimism. If others see you yielding to uncertainty without letting it paralyze, distract, or demoralize you, they’ll understand how they can do the same. Show people that uncertainty and high performance can peacefully coexist.
3. Fill the waiting with work.
As humans, we hate to wait. Not knowing how long we’ll have to wait makes it harder. Sometimes, as managers, we make the mistake of assuming that we shouldn’t burden people who are experiencing uncertainty with additional work. “After all,” we ask, “don’t they have enough to deal with emotionally without loading them up with work?” Again, it’s a bit counter-intuitive, but the kindest thing you can do for someone who is burdened with uncertainty is give them real work to do, and lots of it. The result. Real chances to add value. Real opportunities to make decisions. Real satisfaction for contributing. Work is the best antidote to worrying. If we have to wait, and sometimes we do, work is a blessing, not a curse.
4. Work “in the absence of.”
Uncertainty dishes up dozens of excuses for why we can’t. Not enough information. Not sure of the outcomes. Not certain of the risks. But to effectively lead during uncertainty, ask yourself the following question, “In the absence of that information, what can I do?” In other words, don’t focus on what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do, despite the uncertainty. This approach works with those you manage as well. When they offer up reasons for why they can’t, ask “Despite that uncertainty, what can you do?”
5. Scan for danger, then opportunity.
In situations where people feel threatened or uncomfortable, their first scan is for danger. Humans are hardwired for self-preservation, and you can’t change that. You can, however, help move people beyond the first scan. A second scan can deliver a more optimistic assessment of the situation. So for example, during the months prior to a merger, announcements that are initially perceived by employees as threatening may cause negative reactions because they trigger the fear of loss. By asking people to take a second look, this time for opportunities, you can help them balance their initial reaction. Say, “Yes, that’s true, there are some risks. Now let’s look again to see what opportunities might be possible.” Don’t try to convince people that the risks don’t exist. You’ll lose your credibility. Just remind them that change always comes bearing gifts. Help people see those gifts and give the merger a chance.
6. Act confident and genuine confidence will follow.
The best thing to do when you lack confidence is to act like you have it anyway. It’s natural to experience some doubt as you manage through uncertainty prior to close. Feeling a little nervous or unsure is to be expected. Being uncomfortable because you don’t have all the answers or can’t anticipate what’s coming next is perfectly normal. But acting nervous, unsure, anxious, or uncomfortable will simply compound the problem. Not only will it escalate your anxiety, but it will create anxiety in those around you. Emotions are contagious. On the other hand, walking confidently and demonstrating confidence in your facial expressions and tone of voice will boost confidence and begin a positive spiral of response. So act confident first and you’ll become more confident as a result. Just be sure that you’re acting confident, not arrogant. Crossing that fine line can harm your reputation.