Culture is crucial when merging teams at the workplace

Corporate cultures can differ markedly, and the history of mergers is littered with the case study skeletons of com­panies that failed to success­fully integrate their considerable differences into something new that actually worked.

Carly Fiorina, the chairwoman of Hewlett-Packard, left, and Michael Capellas, the company's president, in the days after the HP-Compaq merger closed. The merger, which created the world's largest supplier of IT products to SMEs, is a case study in combining two radically different workplace cultures. Reuters
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Mergers, both in the region and internationally, have made for regular reading in recent weeks, with a number of big names making moves that could let them take on a new look and scale. Alongside the market excitement and media attention inevitably generated by these corporate marriages, there is also a fair amount of focus on the considerable challenge of melding two corporate cultures into one.

For the employees of the merging entities, this can be by far the biggest concern. Corporate cultures can differ markedly, and the history of mergers is littered with the case study skeletons of companies that failed to successfully integrate their considerable differences into something new that actually worked.

Take the merger of the computing firms Hewlett-Packard and Compaq in the early 2000s, which is regularly cited as an example of an effort to merge that – initially at least – created real tensions between two competing working cultures. The example sets up one firm that had always focused on highly planned work systems to develop technology and react to the market; while the other was more spontaneous and met demand through rapid responses to the information in front of them.

It took considerable struggles to turn these near-opposite cultures into something that captured the best parts of both firms.

Mergers are rare enough that most leaders and managers will not face the prospect of integrating cultures at an organisational level very often. However, there is a much higher chance that internal structural changes leave you facing the prospect of mixing together previously distinct teams within a business. Perhaps marketing and sales are to become one, or engineering teams from different disciplines will now work under the same umbrella. Previously unthinkable team dynamics can sometimes dramatically appear on the cards.

Although no doubt involving smaller numbers than an organisational merger, the challenges are not necessarily reduced. Individual teams, even where they regularly work very closely with others, can quickly develop their own culture – from the way they generate ideas, the speed at which they plough through projects to how they interact with one another throughout the working day. These distinctions can constitute a major part of what individuals find most engaging about their work, and they might be understandably resistant if they’re suddenly expected to work under a very different regime. People are always likely to push back against change, and this is particularly true where it is perceived to have a negative effect on their own share of work.

One point this situation immediately illustrates is the benefit of having a strong, unifying corporate culture that minimises this resistance through more shared expectations. However, even the most robust culture can leave space for some distinct working practices, and it is at this point that the person in charge needs to put in the work to integrate cultures without decimating engagement or productivity.

Doing so means treading a careful line between different ways of doing things – identifying their features, considering their relative advantages and drawbacks, then considering how both can contribute to how things will happen in the future.

It should also involve employees as far as possible – not only in examining the nitty gritty logistical details that will emerge, but also in directly contributing to how a new culture can be built that suits both groups of people.

This isn’t a given, and it certainly can’t be done without individuals talking to one another. A leader of a newly merged team needs to be ready to communicate regularly and quickly, identifying any issues and being open about how they intend to overcome them. They, in particular, need to avoid the perception that they are submerging one team into a dominant culture of another, and they must take any opportunity to allow members of the team to interact and share experiences to improve the overall dynamic.

Above all, allowing the necessary time for a new team’s culture to develop and settle is crucial. While you need to work fast enough to avoid too much dissension, you also need to balance this with the patience to allow an effective new culture to properly take hold.

Ahmad Badr is chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.

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