How do I deal with culture clash? - Ask Liz

Thursday 22 June 2023

 woman raising handAuthor: Liz Codd

Dear Liz,

After an acquisition, my team has merged with a few key people from a boutique we have bought out. I run the team and want to build cohesiveness as soon as possible, but, as ever with merger decisions, some people are unhappy with the way things have shaken out, and there’s a cultural gap in working practices between a smaller, focused firm and a global asset manager with lots more stakeholders. What’s the best way to bring my new team together so they work well together?

Dear Reader,

Thank you for this great question about a situation that is common, and therefore very relevant.  

Bringing together people into one team who joined two different organisations is quite a challenge for several reasons.  The person who joined a boutique, smaller, focused firm probably did that because that was the kind of organisation in which they prefer to work.  Equally, those who joined the global asset manager will likely have done so deliberately, but now the people from the boutique firm find themselves in an environment not of their choosing (assuming the boutique firm was acquired by the global asset manager).  This can easily result in a degree of emotional resistance on their part, let alone the fact that they may not have experience of working in a larger organisation and all that it entails.  There may be issues around status and power (‘where do I fit into the hierarchy?’), and control (‘I didn’t choose this’), that need to be dealt with.  Organisational culture (sometimes described as ‘how we do things around here’) can be intangible but it has such a significant impact on how we feel about working for an organisation.

This brings me to some suggestions for how to tackle the issues and find ways to bring cohesion.  There are two key issues at a high level, one is the emotional impact of the acquisition and the other is the practicalities of the work that needs to get done.  My suggestion is that you, with the team, acknowledge them both and consider tackling them separately.  The emotional impact will need to be addressed first to allow people to move on to more practical matters, as feelings and emotions act like interference in our thinking processes.  We can’t think straight until we deal with emotions.

In terms of dealing with the emotional impact, it’s a case of acknowledging how people are feeling by inviting and enabling them to talk, to air their feelings, rather than suppress them.  This requires what these days we call ‘psychological safety’, i.e. a safe place to say what you are thinking and feeling in the knowledge that there are not going to be negative consequences.  Sometimes I call this a ‘moan zone’ and when I work with teams, I give them a finite amount of time to have a good old moan with the agreement that after the time is up, they will be constructive and positive.  The key here is to accept that if we are in a situation that is not of our choosing that we don’t like, it may bring out the worst in us, we need a space to get that out of our system so we can return to being the best of ourselves.  It’s not easy or comfortable to have these kinds of discussions but it can make a real difference to how people feel and help them to move on.  A lot has been written about the benefits of psychological safety and as a leader how to create it.  There is a brilliant book, Conversational Intelligence by Dr Judith Glaser, which focuses on how to have conversations that are productive, constructive, supportive and, ultimately, more effective in achieving our goals and objectives.

In terms of dealing with the practicalities, my suggestion is to try to identify them all. Create lists, and tackle each one in a systematic manner.  Make sure each team member has the opportunity to have their say, and demonstrate curiosity for understanding how and why each organisation has the working practices it has.   For some it may be possible to adopt the working practice of the boutique firm, for some it may be required to stick with the approach of the global asset manager, or there might be a compromise, but work through each one, discuss it, and agree together the best approach.  It’s important not to assume that the working practices of the larger organisation are better but to be open to learning from colleagues who come from the boutique firm.

In terms of team culture, this is something that you can create together through lots of discussion.  In other words, take a collaborative approach to making conscious decisions about things such as how you want to treat each other, the values you want to adopt as a team, your expectations of each other, what will be rewarded, what will not, the objectives and goals of the team and the part that each person will play in achieving them.  In this way you can bring together the best of the two organisations.  Each team member could be asked to let go of their loyalty to the organisation they originally joined and deliberately ‘sign up’ to this new team that everyone has shared in describing.

I hope these suggestions are helpful, practical and achievable.

Got a question? Write to me, and I’ll give you some advice, on an entirely anonymous basis.  

Queries may be posted in anonymous, general terms, with Liz’s response, on our website. Liz may not be able to reply to all queries but will do her best to get back to you. 

Liz Codd, Director, Leadenhall Consulting and Chief Coaching Officer, Coaching on Demand.

Liz Codd - PI

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