Post-Merger, how do you get shared values and a sense of belonging?

What happens when companies merge, taking for granted that their cultures will blend easily – but not paying attention to the differences?

What follows when similar-sounding values turn out to mean different codes of behaviour?

Sadly, the symptoms can be pretty ugly:

  • Initial tetchiness grows to stubborn refusal to co-operate
  • Constipated decision-making
  • High risk of silo-fencing and progress-blocking
  • A rash of customer complaints
  • Loss of talented people

The sense of belonging is limited to smaller and smaller groups (local or functional) rather than to the whole organisation. Other divisions are firmly ‘them’ not part of ‘us’.

Some years ago, leading a values and culture project with an international travel group, we saw these symptoms reach a critical stage: stultifying stagnation.

No-one could agree on anything. Everyone was right (individually). Led by a dysfunctional board whose meetings felt like entering a boxing ring, there were people actually pacing up and down and bobbing on toes before the start. The soundtrack was more “Two tribes go to way” than “Eye of the tiger”.

And values – while the list was similar – were most definitely not shared.

How did it go so wrong?

It was partly ownership, partly style of culture, partly a highly fragmented sense of belonging.

This was a group of mid-sized independent corporate travel agencies, mainly owner-managed, that had banded together to benefit from scale, reach and purchasing clout. Together they were bigger than Am-Ex travel. Individually they said similar kinds of things in ‘about us’ and ‘our values’. But the entrepreneurial nature of the leaders – independent mavericks with their cards close to their chests – got in the way of the collaborative open exchange that the new organisation needed.

Values became a list of desirables rather than a set of principles.
The solution: move from passive ‘values’ to active ‘what we value’

We ditched the old laundry list of ‘our values’.

We prompted the team to get real – tangentially rather than self-consciously.

We set up exercises that examined how we work, what works well, and what doesn’t.

Activities to stimulate discussion that reveal, intuitively, ‘What we value’.

This makes it all meaningful and relevant, a basis for daily work in the organisation that everybody belongs to.

What do we value? Why?

What do we do about it?

OK… Why should we believe you?

In our workshops we listen out for the sounds that reveal truth: laughter, snorting, and silence.

The breakthrough was when we heard all three, as the leaders identified a theme:

“We value being right”

Laughter at the shared recognition of truth.

Snorting at the “blooming obviousness” of it (and in exasperation of each other).

Silence when they acknowledged it in themselves – and realised the problems this caused every day.

Al revealing both truth and ugly realities, long-tolerated, that needed to be addressed.

With carefully managed discussion, the team turned “We value being right” into a positive ethos at the heart of it all

“We value getting things right”

Brilliantly, the leaders had pinpointed a way to connect employees with customers, and each other.

Getting things right means working well together not just alone, and it means getting things right for customers all over the world.

This is a snapshot of a process over several months, reaching out far beyond leadership. We involved a wide mix of people across the businesses: different roles, geography, and hierarchy.

Inclusion is critical

Participation is the best way to get under the skin, in the natural language of people in the business.

We ran a tour of workshops with people in Washington, Chicago, Miami, London, Europe, and Los Angeles*.

After the sessions, we shared pages and pages of input with everybody via intranet, so people could see what others had said – and the patterns became clear. It was easy to summarise one page of key messages.

And, with a bit of insight and craft, down to one line that summed up the new company’s ethos and purpose.

Far more than a list of values.
 A rallying cry of ‘what we value and what we’re here for’

We’ve found over the years, this is by far the best way to define what we all belong to, in an authentic voice. The inclusive process is part of the solution. Everybody shares ownership. People are more likely to uphold this ethos – because they want to, not because someone’s telling them to.

Of course this was just the beginning: there’s no quick fix to challenges of culture and belonging. Gradually the statements took on relevance to everybody’s daily work and meaning for customers.

The trick is to find activities to suit the nuances and character-cocktail of each client, in tangential ways, to uncover ‘what we value’.

Mergers and acquisitions can be a time of great opportunity: but belonging challenges – such as shared values – can get in the way.

For our travel group tackling this gave them a good start to commercial success: know what we value, what we stand for, why that matters – and what we all belong to.

(*By chance we stayed in the hotel where the Golden Globe Film Awards were happening. My colleague, who looked like a young Harrison Ford, was starstruck to find himself standing next to the real one. His minder discouraged photographs. Ah, but that’s another story.)

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