Problems with Culture After A Merger? Ask Madeleine

Us Versus ThemDear Madeleine, 

I am a senior director at a big pharma company. Our company has grown quickly through mergers and acquisitions—four in the last four years, in fact. I’ve noticed a big problem with what seems to be an “us and them” culture. Even some of my peers forget that we are all one company now. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about values and strategy, and people seem to be on board with it. It’s the little stuff that concerns me. 

For example, some of my colleagues still come to work wearing shirts that have their old company logo on them. They’ve been given new gear, but still think it’s okay to wear the old stuff. I’ve also noticed that there is a lot of “we/you” language: “We’ve always done it this way.” “We’ve been successful, and you need to think about…” It’s very frustrating. What can I do to convince my peers that these small, subtle things actually have a big impact? 

—Trying to Shift Things

Dear Trying to Shift Things,

You are frustrated by something that is nothing more or less than fundamental human nature. We are essentially tribal. We automatically create “in-groups” made up of the people we see as most like us—and we prefer them to anyone else. This is a well known phenomenon; there are reams of research proving it. The minute you have teams made up of the shirts vs. skins, team members will fight on behalf of their own. It made me laugh that in your situation you are literally dealing with shirts! So classic.

You are clearly a senior person on the acquiring side, so you have an expectation that the conquered nations will bow to the triumphant one. But it doesn’t work that way. Essentially, you are asking people to shift loyalties, which can certainly happen—but it does take time.

What you are dealing with here is affecting culture change. There about a million books and blogs available to you on this topic, so I am not going to try to be an expert on it here. But I do have one approach that can get things moving in the right direction.

Put the problem, as you see it, to your group. Ask for their perspective on it. As a group, agree on one or two behavioral changes that support a feeling that you all are pulling for the same team. Get the conversation going and have them talk to their own people about the impact of the subtle things. You cannot convince anyone, but you can arrange for dialogue with your peers.

And get help! Since you are big pharma, I am almost certain that you have at your disposal an HR partner who lives and breathes this kind of problem and would be delighted to work with you to solve it. This is so much bigger than something you can accomplish by yourself—but you certainly can be a champion for change.

Good luck,

Love Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

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