McCormack Speaks

Managing Conflict in Organizational Mergers


by Eben Weitzman
Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance

knotJust about anyone who has gone through a merger of two or more organizations can tell you: it can be a nightmare. More often than not, someone thought there was a really good reason—so why is it often so hard?

Mergers impact individuals, working groups, customers/constituents, and the organization as a whole. They present cultural and political challenges, shake up trust, and often generate anxiety and conflict. Successfully navigating a merger requires a clear vision and strategy, and strong leadership to see it through. A key part of that is preparing for and constructively managing conflict that is almost inevitable, and that’s the focus of this piece.

Understanding Sources of Conflict

It’s essential at the outset to recognize that in all likelihood, conflict will be a significant part of the experience.  Understanding some of the common drivers of conflict in organizational mergers can help with planning ahead.

First of all, in most cases, there will be people losing real things: status, money, perks. Some people may lose their jobs, others may lose roles.

Further, practices and norms that have been invested in may fall by the wayside as the newly merged organization establishes its own culture and processes.  Norms and values that have been invested in can be extremely difficult to walk away from.

As the new organization pivots to its new mission, commitments may be reassessed, and some abandoned, and people on both ends of such commitments may resist.  Not to be lost in all this is that it’s often the case that one or the other organization is seen—rightly or wrongly—as the “winner.”

Resolving Conflict

So, what can you do?  Fortunately, quite a bit.

  1. Create shared “superordinate goals.” Creating higher ideals—overarching goals that everyone, regardless of faction, can buy into—is the single most powerful thing you can do to unite warring parties.
  2. Respect people’s interests. Look for opportunities to “make it worthwhile.” Sometimes an ex-president can actually be paid more in a lower rank in a larger organization.  Sometimes people from the “losing” organization can gain opportunities to do new things that they never could have in the smaller, perhaps poorer-performing, organization.
  3. Let go of the winners & losers frame. Parties in conflict can sometimes find that there are elements to the other side’s perspective that can be incorporated into creating an even stronger new direction.
  4. Be clear about “what” and “why.” We’ve seen over and over that confusion, anarchy, and ambiguity breed destructive conflict. Part of that is the anxiety such situations create, and part of it comes from the fact that uncoordinated efforts to solve real problems in good faith can lead the most well-intentioned of colleagues to work at cross purposes or step on each other’s toes.
  5. Solicit different perspectives and take them seriously. Even people who are losing power and are mad about it can have valuable insight and information to offer. Treating their views with respect can go a long way to repairing damaged relationships. Not only do you have the opportunity to learn and benefit from the collective wisdom of people in the merging organizations, soliciting input and taking it seriously is a strong way to demonstrate to people that they are respected and valued, and help them build a stake in the new organization.
  6. Give “negative opinion leaders” a seat at the table. This can be a scary thing to do, but including those influential people who have a history of stirring up resistance can also be one of the smartest moves you can make. It’s almost always better to work with these folks earlier than having them sabotage your efforts later.
  7. Be clear about what’s negotiable and what’s not. Taking a constructive approach to managing conflict does not have to mean putting everything on the table. If there are things that you absolutely cannot afford to negotiate—such as continuing to have financial audits, or going through with the merger—then allowing a negotiation that can’t go anywhere will only undermine your credibility in your efforts to collaborate.
  8. Move quickly and decisively. For all the need to be inclusive and respectful, you also can’t lose sight of the fact that the longer confusion and ambiguity hang around, the more anxious people will become. And the more anxious they are, the more they will either dig in to positions or disinvest themselves from the organization.

Embracing Conflict

Mergers almost always involve conflict, and it is frequently intense.  The approach suggested here won’t make for a conflict-free merger.  What it can do is provide a path that will lead to managing conflict in ways that lead to better decisions, build stronger commitment to the new organization, and allow you to maintain your integrity, relationships and leadership.

Got conflict?  Learn more about our graduate programs in conflict resolution.

Eben Professor Eben WeitzmanWeitzman (PhD, Columbia University) directs the Graduate Programs in Conflict Resolution at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School. He specializes in organizational conflict, cultural differences in attitudes toward conflict, and the effects of cooperation and competition on small group processes.

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