One of my reading obsessions for the last couple of years has been the subject of behavioural economics. A key finding (from the psychology arm of the science) is the concept of ‘unconscious bias’; the idea that despite the contention from a rational perspective that we are not biased, the evidence suggests that we are influenced by colour and race in our decisions and inclinations. There’s a good short video on the subject here.
Whilst that’s a depressing concept, is that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that with close, planned contact between race and gender (the example used is playing a game), the level of unconscious bias diminishes.
How does all that connect with the challenge of integration? My contention is that powerful integration is granular in nature. It starts and ends with 100s and 1000s of small, tactical, pragmatic conversations at many different levels from the bottom to the top of the organisation. What are those conversations about?
- Processes and practices…how do you do this, why do you do it like that, how does it compare with what I do?
- Customers….what are they looking for, what are their biggest issues, how do you negotiate, what parts of the sales process are ‘non-negotiable?
- Team members…how do you manage your organisation, how do you make decisions, how much do you control / as opposed to guide?
- Governance…what are the expectations of your manager, how do you manage upwards?
- Network…who makes things happen here, and who influences decisions?
- …and ultimately culture and values: are you someone who that I can trust, relate to, believe in and work with?
What impact do these conversations have? From my observations over the last 15 years, they often result in the following conclusions:
- You and I have similar issues and challenges…we have more in common than I expected
- You and I are equally nervous about the future…our ability to influence the careers we have going forward in this integrated business is limited
- I may be able to work with you…
For many companies, a key part of the culture is the encouragement of a visceral, negative attitude towards their competitors.
Whilst there is widespread recognition that ‘slamming the competitor’ is a dangerous tactic, the approach still continues and ‘schadenfreude’ is perceived to be a powerful tool for leadership in creating a homogenous culture. It is this approach that leads to a kind of corporate ‘unconscious’ bias….it is the conscious focus on dealing with this bias that has a significant impact on success or failure in post acquisition integration.
So what’s the message for leadership involved in integration:
- Create the environment for these conversations…disseminate, devolve, desist from over-controlling behaviours
- Orchestrate / organise the opportunity for many discussions for functional and subject matter experts. Give them real integration related tasks / issues to resolve
- Coordinate / collaborate / capture the results…and communicate like crazy
The reality is that for most employees, the external lens is becoming ever more powerful…the opinions of our friends, ex-colleagues and network feature significantly in our decisions about who we work for, why they are employers whom we should consider working for, and whether their values match our own. How employers act during periods of complex transformation and stress is a test not just of their business acumen, but their culture and values.