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In This Issue
Communicating During Mergers
The Fear Domino Effect
In Your Shoes

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Winter 2011

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Kate Nelson and Stacy Aaron

Many of our clients have experienced mergers in the past year. Mergers bring change, and often... fear.  "Communicating During Mergers" below explains how communication can ease uncertainty and facilitate change during a merger. "The Fear Domino Effect" talks about how the fear of communicating can have both direct and indirect negative consequences.  Also, check out the perspectives of two people who were successfully certified in Change Management through Change Guides this past year in the In Your Shoes section. Their two companies merged at the end of 2009!  (If you are interested in getting certified yourself, let us know... you can even get PMI or HRCI credits!) If you have not seen our blog, check it out at www.changeguides.wordpress.com.  


Enjoy the newsletter and, as always, let us know what you think! E-mail Feedback.
All the best,
Kate and Stacy


Communicating During Mergers 

A new regional leader has been appointed by corporate after the merger and he went to meet with one of the local offices. There had been rumblings that this guy was picked because he had a track record of closing low performing offices. The morning of his visit, the break room was crowded with people talking in hushed voices.


"We've been having a rough quarter. I bet he's going to tell us they're closing our office."


"I heard from someone at another office that he is a real jerk and will shoot first and ask questions later."


"We won't get severance or anything. Do you remember when Mary was fired? I heard she didn't get anything at all from this place."


"My wife's company just laid off half of their workers and made them hand over their computers and leave that same day."


What happened during the new boss's visit was quite different. His intention was simply to meet the office staff. He told them that he was hoping to see performance improve in the office, but he certainly didn't unveil any big office closing plans.


Sadly the speculation continued after the new division head left. "Do you think they are just waiting to do it until more time has passed since the merger? Do you think they are waiting until the beginning of next year for tax purposes?"


Six years later, the office is still open, never having seen the significant lay-offs or closing that many speculated would happen over the years. The office, however, has continued to suffer poor productivity and low morale. Given the generally bleak environment, it is not surprising that the merger has led to much higher turnover than expected.


So what was really happening here?


Quite simply put, people are afraid of the unknown. When people are uncertain about the future, they instinctively seek out greater control, better understanding, and human support. The chat fest in the break room is a completely natural human response to help fill those needs for control, understanding, and support in a time of uncertainty and change.


The act of speculating and commiserating with peers is a real way to feel more control by talking through a situation and discussing alternatives. Studies show that, in the absence of information, people just make stuff up... and they most often assume a far worse outcome than reality. It is interesting that we don't really care if the information is correct. We just want to know something to make us feel like we understand what is going on.


And those same discussions help people feel supported by others. Time spent sharing gossip or conjecture with peers helps people feel as if they are not alone in their fears.


If people don't have a constructive way to channel their drive for control, understanding and support, they will fill those needs themselves, in ways that are sometimes not advantageous to the organization. People are talking, whether leaders are a part of the conversations or not.


Unfortunately, leaders often think "nothing has changed" or "we don't want to go public with this yet" so they don't say anything at all. The truth is, however, that just because no one is communicating on behalf of the organization does not mean that the conversations are not happening. The conversations are indeed happening in hallway whispers, office gossip, or offline discussions before or after meetings. When leaders sit back, it just means that their point of view is not part of the conversations.


To effectively manage uncertainty and change, be proactive about connecting people and encouraging them to share their thoughts and fears in controlled, rational forums. We are not talking about free-for-alls where everyone moans and complains about management. What is needed is the chance to share ideas and fears, and a forum for the transparent flow of questions and answers.


When a merger happens, some productivity dip is natural. But leaders need to guide people through change in order to minimize that dip. By guiding the conversations that people have about uncertainties, leaders can keep people motivated and focused on the right targets without unnecessarily taking their eye off the ball.

The Fear Domino Effect

When companies are in the midst of merging or one company is being acquired, employees feel uncertain and uncomfortable. In addition, I see fear. Leaders fear failure. Workers fear the unknown. Fear during change is normal but it shouldn't be ignored. Fear distracts people. Fear drives unproductive behavior and causes poor decision making.


I think fear is personal. Each person interprets their work situation in his or her own way. Some are more fearful during change than others. Some let their fear influence what they do and what they say while others are more resilient, relying on past experience or a support system to ride out the tough times. But even those not as fearful, must work with the fearful ones, listen to their worries, see their anxiety. It's a hard place to work when there is a lot of fear.


Leaders usually don't admit to being scared but I see it demonstrated in their decisions, words and actions. Leaders fear communicating during change. They fear looking like they don't have all the answers or saying something that will come back to haunt them. They are afraid that the information they share will spur questions, requiring more of their limited time to address. So, they deal with that fear by delaying communications to employees. They want to communicate when more information is known and there is less perceived risk in communicating. Their fear sometimes prevents them from saying anything. I understand this fear; communicating during change takes courage, an ability to juggle tough questions and a commitment of time. However, this lack of or delayed communication creates a fear domino effect.


Workers are great observers of behavior. They see leaders meet behind closed doors. They see high paid consultants come in and meet with leaders. They sense important decisions are being made but the leaders aren't talking. This leaves the workers to their own thoughts and fears. Will there be layoffs? Will I be laid off? Will my department change? Will my boss change? In the absence of information, people make stuff up. We know from research that people tend to fear the worst. Their fears are almost always worse than the reality. They guess and feed off of each other. Without leaders talking, the rumor mill is the main source of information (even speculative information is better than no information).


Thus, I've found part of my job as a change consultant is to reduce fear. I counsel leaders on how to communicate during change. They need to follow a set of rules such as: 1) tell what you know, what you don't know, and when you'll communicate more, 2) have consistent, compelling messages so employees understand why the change is happening and the scope of the change, and 3) communicate what is NOT changing which is just as important for employees to understand. I counsel the project team on how to best reach out to employees, involve key people and expand ownership of what is coming. These tactics help employees better understand the change. With a set of principles and tactics, fear can be reduced. It can't be eliminated entirely but it should be addressed. You don't want fear to distract workers and drive behavior. Change is hard enough without rampant fear.

In Your Shoes 


Cheri Sagona

Director, Organization Development


Have you approached projects differently after the certification? If so, how? 

Yes. The certification process simplifies the complexities of change and provides you with user-friendly tools that help you remain above the fray. Here's what I mean.  Often in the middle of a project, we find ourselves caught up in it or even trapped by the details, personalities, timelines, project management jargon and so on.  The certification gave me a perspective that allowed me to identify what might be happening in the project (i.e. groups or leaders who are misaligned, rumors, resistance, lack of communication and training) and to use the tools to get back on the right track.


What advice do you have for others trying to drive change?

Get yourself invited to the dance early!  Arriving late might be fashionable in most social situations it definitely doesn't apply to projects.  Actively participating in the initial project planning stage is the best way to ensure aspects of change management are incorporated into the project plan and will go along way to educating both the project team and the organization. 


What one thing has helped you the most in driving change in your organization?  

Change Guides and a boss who gets it! 


megheadMeg Sworsky

AVP, Organizational Development


Have you approached projects differently after the certification? If so, how?
Yes, I am putting more time into the plan for the project and involving other in creating that plan.  The tools we received in the session make it easier to organize your thinking.  The questions and considerations are all right there and you don't have to spend time creating them.  The tools also help to engage others in planning.  For example, when you involve project leadership in completing a Change Readiness Audit, it helps leaders to identify their own issues or areas needing further study.  I am finding this to be much more effective than simply pointing out things that you observe and persuading others to act.


What advice do you have for others trying to drive change?

Once you are to the implementation stage of a project, communicating what you know, when you know it is critical.  It often takes repeated messages delivered various ways to help people understand and move through change.  Being transparent about a change helps to build trust in the organization. 


What one thing has helped you the most in driving change in your organization?  

In the change Management Pocket Guide, there are tools that can be used at any stage of a change project.  Using the tools helps you to quickly identify issues that need attention and focus your energy in the right areas.