Fear at work (part 3)

I have written about fear at work over the last two weeks.

In this post I discuss how a Chair or Chief Executive might be more successful, if they work with the knowledge of fear, how to manage it and how to strengthen their teams. My own experience tells me that in groups and organisations where there is a high level of trust and a low level of fear, a strong sense of shared endeavour, enthusiasm and fun gets great results.

Staff meet Executive Board members frequently (with cakes)

In an organisation where reflection and an awareness of emotional forces are part of the culture strategic decision making will be less subjective than in an organisation where we pretend these things cannot happen. We have found that bringing up our subjective experiences and seeking their emotional context together in our senior team has really helped us arrive at better decision making. As we become more aware and open, and as we share our experiences, feelings and thoughts within our team, we bring our cognitive biases to light.

Having a genuine dialogue improves the quality of the processes and the interpersonal relationships between board members. This is lots of fun, and creates a unified, enthusiastic board, full of energy and commitment to the task. These features help ensure the job is done more quickly and at a higher level of quality.

The other factor, of course, in a team that genuinely trusts one another, fear and insecurity are reduced. Then everyone can bring their fullest experience and attention to the difficult issues, helping resolve them through collective reflection.

I am not suggesting that boards of management or Non-Executive Directors go on courses or that workshops are organised. If the Chairperson or Chief Executive uses their power and authority effectively to manage agendas and meetings, these benefits can be achieved during a normal meeting cycle. Banish the boring presentations, giving too much information, at your board meetings . Avoid papers, with lots of hyperbolic adjectives, that insist on one “no-brainer” answer (if the solution is so obvious why are we wasting our time on it?). Encourage dissent, and bring hesitancy to light. Allow an actual exchange to take place, especially if you think you know the “answer”.

A genuine dialogue requires all of to make our perceptions available to the group to reflect on. As the group thinks through the issue it is good to question our own assumptions and those of others, wherever possible separating the idea/comment from who said it. One of the greatest challenges in effective meeting management is to decouple our reaction to an idea from our reaction to the person who voices it. It is considerably easier if we see all ideas as coming from the group as a whole. The discomfort all of us feel when our ideas are rejected or criticised can make it very difficult to express our thoughts and feelings freely. It is only in an atmosphere where all the ideas are genuinely “shared” that everyone can gain the confidence to contribute their learning to the group.

These feelings, once made conscious and aired in a supportive group, allow us to make better decisions in an uncertain and constantly changing world. This gives an enormous competitive advantage. For example poor sales results may lead to a knee jerk reaction – reaching a solution too quickly that jeopardises the future. Even worse one team gets the blame and are ostracised and eventually they leave in demoralisation, or are sacked. The difficult and frightening reality that the product is not selling as well as it did needs lots of thought, research, questioning and a united team approaching it from all angles.

Not all boards can work this way, as so much depends on the personality of the Chairman or CEO. His or her behaviour absolutely determines how the meetings and atmosphere develop. The more mature and developed the personality the easier it is to conduct reflection-based meetings, so it is of no surprise that some of the best Chairs are in their 60s or older. Often wisdom comes with age, although not in all cases! At the same time it is not that unusual to find narcissistic personalities in charge of organisations, either as Chair or CEO. These type of people may be highly motivated to become the best but underlying it is often an unconscious fear of failing, becoming a pathetic also-ran no one cares to spend time with. This fear leads them to need huge amounts of recognition, and they like nothing better than being applauded and admired. On the other hand if they hear voices of criticism or even disagreement this is experienced as an existential threat and needs to be closed down, so it is not possible to allow open dialogue in the board room.

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Fear at work (part 2)

Last week I wrote about fear at work. This week I will discuss how my team and I try to work with this fear. In part 3 – next week – I will to apply this thinking to the Chair/Board level.

Lets sum up what really helps. Planning the future gives us a sense of power and control over the uncontrollable. But it doesn’t deal effectively with the human factors involved. The following three point plan is more effective.

  1. Team work
  2. Experiment with solutions
  3. Self and team reflection

The first strategy is to rely on others to help you cope with fear. At home this may be a friend or relative, but at work your manager or team is usually the most important source of strength, advice and perspective. I take all my more difficult issues straight to my team – as a whole, or to the person who is most likely to help me (ultimately us) find a way forward. This helps with not just finding a solution, but also provides me with some comfort and empathy in a safe space. It can be scary to do this – to share your fears with your “subordinates”. However, doing this consistently doesn’t show that you are a poor leader, quite the opposite. Not only does doing this help me a great deal, it actually builds the self esteem of others (that they are introduced to real leadership issues and can help resolve them) but it also develops trust and understanding in the team.

The second strategy is to examine the way you are solving the difficulties. I am making the case for trying something new. If the old solutions don’t take the organisation forward then approach it differently. I often feel like confronting problems head on, but on reflection there is usually a better way. Calmly considering other options or approaching the tried and tested with a different mind set can open up and resolve the difficulty. Being able to overcome a fearful situation, and doing it well builds your own self-confidence and helps you next time you face a difficulty. Having lots of “difficult” conversations over the years has helped me become

Thirdly – and this is involved in the first two – is self-reflection. This involves me becoming more aware of how I am thinking, feeling and behaving. Why have I got into a bind? Why am I finding it so hard to think my way out of this one? What is going on for me and what impact am I having on others – my team, the Board, the organisation? Spending quiet time, away from the fray, often with the advice and support of others is the best antidote to fear.

Thinking and making decisions are always related to our emotions and feelings. In fact it is impossible to think without feeling, even if we have no awareness of it, and it is happening in the background. While we weigh up a decision our feelings play a vital role. But when we get to the answer our habit is to credit our conscious mind rather than the strength or value of our feelings. We believe our decisions are rational. This is value of reflection as it brings the feelings side to light as an important consideration in major decision making. Bringing our unconscious motives and conscious goals together really strengthen our resilience and mental health.

But this feeling of fear is an alarm bell for us – the raised heart rate, the rush of colour to or away from our skin, feeling a bit sick or jumpy (we all have different physical reactions and need to discover what our personal reaction is) and tells us that we need to take positive action to resolve it. The feeling of fear should guide our response – it is actually an important indicator that the issue which gave rise to it needs special consideration. However when faced with fear, most people react defensively rather than reflectively. They repress the fear, or even forget it. Pushing the feeling away is what leads to stress, but worse than that it prevents us from learning and growing as we learn to deal with difficulties. Dealing with fear, rather than blocking it out, helps us to mature and develop. Those who appear fearless are usually hiding it behind a mask – aggressive domination, or more submissive aggression, or even permanent cheerfulness.

Fear at work (part 1)

I spent the weekend trying to teach a child how to ride a bike. I found it tough, and so did he. Although I knew he could do it, his fear of falling off was holding him back. He didn’t want to break his arm and his difficulty in steering while also peddling made him fear the pain of falling off.

We have all been there. All of us who have known the pain of injury also fear being injured. The ability to exercise power (peddle furiously) and control (steer the thing) is the only way to conquer fear.  

In this extended, three part article, I want to address fear at work. I would really value your feedback, views and details of your experiences. 

At work people do not generally want to talk about fear. We deny it, and claim that “everything is under control”. But there are two main things that trigger fear at work. Firstly any large scale change, especially as it relates to the break up of relationships, and secondly fear about the future which cannot be known and certainly cannot be controlled.

I have dealt with large scale change before, and its impact on our self esteem and to our sense of self.  The stability of our relationships with other people – our manager, in our team and the groups that we are rooted in (which could include the smokers group, or the people we eat lunch with). These relationships help us become and remain who we are, and this gives us a positive sense of self-worth and contentment. The basic stability and reliability of our relationships provides us with confidence that most things are OK and can be trusted. Conversely major change or threats to these relationships can release an uncontrollable fear.

The other major factor that can make us afraid is the act of thinking about the future. And this is what most senior managers have to do relentlessly, and of course knowing the future is impossible. A board member was exasperated with the sales manager because his predictions on future sales were not reliable. But of course no one really knows how future events or markets will evolve, what customers, suppliers or governments will want. As senior managers, steeped in our industry, and with a significant amount of experience of the past and an awareness of trends and developments we, compared to the person on the street,  probably have a better idea of how things might pan out. But disruption, and innovation, competition, changes in technology and the environment are certain to make the future different to how we envisage it.

In addition even looking towards the future will trigger what is essentially human about us. Our anxious feelings are located in the same region of the brain (the frontal lobe) where we make plans in order to try to get mastery over the uncertainty of what is yet to come. Our fear of our own mortality is an example of this – whether it is the end of our life, or just of our career. On the other hand we like to plan positively about the future (even if it is only our next holiday) because planning how things are going to go, gives us a sense of control our future experiences. Brain damaged individuals who cannot reflect on past, present or future are also generally free of anxiety. Thinking about the future and fearing it, are neurologically linked for us.

 At work the budget, the corporate plan, and the 30 year (!) strategic plan  give us a sense that we have control over what will arise because human beings who lose the ability to control become unhappy, helpless and depressed. Our departmental plans, budgets and financial models exist in part to remove our fear of not knowing, and a feeling of having no control. It could even be said that Board’s preoccupation with trying to predict the future is simply an organisational defence against anxiety. 

One thing our strategies lack, and this has been well expressed by von Clausewitz, an expert on military strategy, is a full understanding of the human factor – which makes things essentially unpredictable.  He writes:

“The theory should also take the human aspect into consideration, also the courage, the daring as well as the audacity should be granted its place. The art of war is about the spirited and moral powers, which means that it can never achieve the absolute and the certain.”

The way to take the human aspect into consideration when planning at work is to develop the ability to reflect on our own feelings, those of the Board and leadership team, and those of the organisation. And it is important to emphasise that this will give you, your team and organisation greater self-knowledge. But you also need to know your competition, your enemy, your customers and stakeholders. And the best way to do this is through empathetic imagining; putting yourself into their shoes.

Empathy for others starts with self-knowledge and awareness, for it is only when we get to know our own vulnerabilities, fears and emotions that we can come to understand others. We can only understand how others are feeling if we become more acutely aware of what we are feeling ourselves. Leaders who know themselves, understanding their own strengths and weaknesses, and with an ability to learn and change in the face of new evidence, will be able to handle their own fear. They can then evaluate the environment and circumstances with a calm and rational outlook, integrating the knowledge they have gained of themselves, their team and their organisation. This makes them more able to deal with their many stakeholders with compassion and effectiveness.

In conclusion to deal with fear we need a team around us who can give us a sense of security and feeling of closeness, who can empathise and help reduce our stress by giving us sensible advice. Secondly we need practice in overcoming fearful situations, creating a feeling of success and building our confidence. And thirdly is our ability to reflect on what happened, especially when we fail and things don’t go “according to plan” or we “loose control”.

Next week I will develop some strategies for dealing with fear at work.

The vulnerable manager

Even as a child I disliked science fiction and fantasy films, or TV programmes with outlandish monsters. The Invulnerable Hero story doesn’t really give us an opportunity to experience its veracity. I preferred my villains and heroes to be utterly human. I still have a strong preference for documentaries and true crime, and series like Chernobyl and  24 Hours in Police Custody  help us understand how regular people achieve greatness or notoriety. To me people are always more interesting than robots, aliens or archetypes, even at their strangest, vilest, or most extreme.  We enjoy drama we can identify with, and what we identify most is probably human failings and vulnerability, and doing well despite the difficulties. Achilles’ heel is ultimately his most interesting feature – it brings him down to earth – to a level we can understand.

All of us, of course, have the ability to both powerful and vulnerable, right from the very start. The dear little, utterly dependent and vulnerable baby becomes the most powerful member of the household, disrupting routines, demanding to be fed, waking the household through the night, and changing forever the pre-existing relationships between the couple who now become Mums or Dads. We all have a personality from the start and this individual interacts with existing personalities to create and ultimately resolve every issue that ever existed – hence our interest in stories based on human relationships.

One hour old baby
One hour old baby

A baby in distress cannot yet communicate with words, or in socially acceptable ways, but his wails, body language and behaviour will have the adults busy interpreting what is going on. Is she hungry, cold, tired or hurting? What can I do to put it right (and stop this horrendous noise)? Can I work out his feelings by taking in and identifying with his fear, anger or pain which drives me to find a solution which relieves his problems? The parent feels the baby’s pain, absorbs and contextualises it (realising the baby is eventually consolable and not in danger of immanent death).

What has this got to do with work?

As managers we have to play a similar role for our staff. Of course they are not going to cry, or roll around in an angry ball, or hit us in frustration (most of the time). They are grown ups and have learnt to control and conceal their anger, disappointment or fear. However the skills of openness and willingness to  to work out what is wrong with a small child gives us a clue about how we might improve our management capacity. An “open” mental attitude, of being receptive to other people’s feelings and unexpressed needs and desires, is something managers could do well to bring to work. Without it we will not be able to truly listen, understand, or communicate with our people. With it we will gain support, willing cooperation and begin to truly lead our people.

Managers only achieve through other people – how can we influence our colleagues and teams to work in the required way,  if we don’t understand their thinking, attitudes, behaviour and feelings? Being open is something our managers try to practice at work. This means we have to be vulnerable enough to listen to unpleasant, unwelcome feelings staff  express through their behaviour, body language and projections into us, as their leaders, as well as through their words. If we remain closed to the feelings of others we will never get the buy-in to our organisation’s plans and projects.  “Buy-in” needs emotional content if it is to survive.

Tearful Theresa

Of course at its purest this approach seems a million miles away from established attitudes that leaders must have a stiff upper lip, never cry in public, be commanding and decisive, always know what to do, etc. In fact showing that we are human – in essence that we can connect, understand and empathise with our teams (that we can think emotionally)  – will give us greater insights and build loyalty to the project at the same time.

From this basic openness to other’s feelings, comes trust.

Firstly we need to be self-aware. This means we must first understand our own strengths and weaknesses and have trust in our own ability to do the job we have been chosen for.  We need to know that we can manage effectively and take up leadership roles. As we gain more experience and have more success we begin to trust ourselves. Trust in our own abilities, skills and judgement creates  the conditions is which we become trusted, and again this allows us to expect others to be trustworthy. Our openness to others begins to build trusting relationships within our organisations.

On the other hand those who are nervous or unsure of their own leadership skills, or perhaps never give it a moment’s thought, lack self-awareness, will fail to appreciate their impact on others. Those who are closed to other people’s feelings can become fearful of their colleagues, and rather than seeking out their views and experiences, will avoid them, worrying that they might have to share their problems and take in negativity or what they called “whinging”. I have known many managers like this, and admit I have frequently felt annoyed by complaints and criticism myself. Disagreement and resistance is never easy to listen to, but if people are angry or annoyed it needs to come out into the open.  These feelings and concerns must be actively heard, felt and addressed – these feelings (or those expressing them) will not just “go away”.

Being closed to other people’s feelings breeds distrust. If we avoid contact with the emotional parts of our organisations, soon we become distrustful of others. We can become paranoid, suspicious and distrusting, ascribing negative motivations and intentions to others. Within a very short period we are distrusted.

On the other hand too much vulnerability is debilitating. We need to do all we can to contain our own anxieties. We want and need to feel powerful, to feel in control of ourselves and our lives, personal situation and the future. At the same time our helplessness and vulnerability is inbuilt and the factor that makes us truly human. Keeping the two in a reasonable balance is important.

In praise of Slido

For years I have been going to meetings where mostly the audience is passive. We sit in rows in front of a speaker who gets half and hour or so to elaborate their views. With ten minutes to spare at the end we are asked if we have any questions. Two or three people, after a little hesitation, put up their hands and ask away. The speaker often rambles on for about eight minutes and the meeting ends. Although slightly more interactive than watching the telly it is mainly about receiving wisdom rather than sharing.

Running a large organisation with nearly 3000 employees there are times when we want to convey our plans and ideas to everyone. Once a year we do this through explaining our plans for the year, and I know this is appreciated. But large set piece events have a major downside. Few get to respond and it can feel like a very one way process. The people with the drive or courage to address a huge audience are not necessarily very representative.  In addition they may fear to speak critically,  worrying about being labelled or marked out as a trouble maker. IMG_6057 2

At Notting Hill Genesis we usually follow up the large events with much smaller meetings where 15 to 20 staff can sit down with Executive Directors and other senior leaders to go through what was announced at the “town hall” meetings. These provide an easier context for many people. The smaller group is less threatening and a genuine dialogue can be achieved.

So what is happening in these events? Firstly the leadership is passing down information on what we want the organisation to focus on over the next year, and gives context (eg the state of our market, political developments etc). At the same time by listening to questions we test the feeling of the organisation and tune into concerns. This is an opportunity for the organisation as a whole to react to the leadership and pass up information and context (eg dissatisfaction with working conditions). And a question and answer format is not quite right for this purpose. The traditional Q and A approach assumes that people want to understand the overall strategy, with an opportunity to challenge or test if it is right or wrong, But few colleagues really want to engage on this level, especially if there are things happening in the organisation that are upsetting, annoying or worrying them. It is not surprising that they want to attack the leadership and expecting them to stand up and give their name may seem highly risky.

On a side note; for many years we have found that our staff satisfaction ratings, which are generally very positive, have been undermined by a low score for “it is safe to speak up when I have concerns”. This finding has dismayed the senior team who believe that it is safe to bring up concerns. We really do want to know how people are thinking and feeling as it is not possible to run a successful organisation where the leadership is ignorant of  the emotions and opinions of employees. But, until now, we didn’t really know how to access these feelings. Of course regular one to ones help, and at an organisation as whole level, trade union and staff associations contribute a great deal. But we wanted to make it safe for people to let us know what is bugging them so we can address the issues.

Currently we are half way through a merger and we expected to hear that people are uncomfortable and angry about the level of change. We expected staff dissatisfaction, especially in response to major change which, while necessary and important, impacts negatively on individuals who generally (me included) prefer continuity. So this year we encouraged people to let us know their views, and to challenge us, in a way that didn’t require them to “come out” as people with “difficult” questions.

Slido allows people to ask questions or make statements anonymously, via their phones. Of course this means there is a likelihood of colleagues asking embarrassing or really hard questions. But we wanted to deal with these topics honestly and reflectively. We are not tricky politicians. We are answerable and accountable to our staff, and this meant we should take criticism on the chin and respond as frankly as we can. IMG_6058

As well as allowing people to ask questions without having to name themselves Slido also allows people to “up vote” other peoples’ questions. Consequently the most pressing concerns, or the most popular questions, come to the top of the list. At the meetings focused on the most consistently asked questions;  if several asked about a topic we assumed many more were thinking it.  This feature of the app was really important in getting a sense of the weight of opinion. If 20 or 30 thought something was important it needed more focus than the questions from one or two. In addition we also took questions in the room from those who wanted to speak in person, via a microphone.

As well as doing our best to respond on the day the Executive team will also respond to the top ten questions via our internet, and provide follow up meetings as before. The issues that our staff have prioritised, via Slido and more traditional means, will become a major focus for our Executive, along with the corporate strategy, over the coming year. How this is understood or appreciated we have yet to see, but I believe it demonstrates that we actively want feedback, and to listen. Over the next year we will act on what our staff tell us, and feedback to them about what changes as a result. Knowing “where the shoe pinches” is vital to making an organisation more effective.  Getting simultaneous feedback and reaction to our leadership has been a really important breakthrough.

How a Chair and Chief Executive work together

One of the most important things in any organisation is how the Chair(man) and Chief Executive work together. I have worked with seven different Chairs in my current role (I am beginning to feel a bit like the Queen, who has had 12 Prime Ministers) and a further dozen or so in previous roles. Also I have served on several boards as a non-executive director and have observed many Chair/CE relationships.

I have learnt a great deal from my Chairs, and most of the relationships have been productive and successful. I have found it enlightening and interesting to work with people with a wide range of skills and backgrounds, and like the staff I manage, each has their own personality and approach.

In a Housing Association the supreme authority is the shareholder group, which appoints the Board, the auditors, approves the accounts, and determines any fundamental changes to the organisation (eg merger). The Board then appoints its Chair from within the Board, and in many Housing Associations (including mine) the Board will also co-opt a number of Executive Board members, who will always be in the minority. My board also includes two “customers” – tenants who live in our homes. I believe that a good board is one where the entire board works as a team, and that there are no obvious distinctions between those who come from each “constituency”. It is important that both tenants and  executives, and any other group (on some boards this maybe people nominated by the local authority), should act in the interests of the organisation as a whole, not in a narrow sectional way.

The Board establishes what areas of responsibility and decision-making are reserved to itself (through the scheme of delegations etc). This includes the overall strategy of the organisation, the business plan and budget, the risk framework, major investment decisions, etc. The Group Board delegates most of the work and day to day decision making to the Executive Board, and through them to the employees.

The Chair is most effective when he or she works with the Board as a whole. This is the body which gives power and legitimacy to his or her thoughts and actions. Similarly the CE works best when he or she works with the Executive Board as a whole. Although both individuals do have some authority to decide issues independently, in large and complex organisations it is very important that they use the skills of their teams to reach a consensus, having regard to the range of views. I cannot emphasis this strongly enough. Two people, doing what they personally want to do (or even worse one of them deciding what they want and manipulating or bullying the other) would be an travesty. The whole point of having a board (Group Board at NHG)  and a senior executive team (Executive Board) is that it provides a rounded, considered view of the most important issues, having regard to a range of interests and expertise. For example on both Group Board and Executive Board we have specific Finance and Property Development expertise. On the Group Board we have customer expertise, and on the Executive Board, housing management experience. An effective Board is one which works as a coherent and consistent team. Major decisions – discussed, tested, interrogated  and finally agreed by a collective leadership – are far superior to my opinion, or what my gut tells me on first consideration (although this is always important too). In fact I would say that issues that are straightforward and uncontentious and “go through on the nod” probably should be delegated to subordinate teams or individuals.

One of the most important roles I hold within the Executive Board is as someone who tries at all times to hold the wishes, approach, needs, feelings and views of the Group Board in my mind, with a view to bringing this into focus as discussions progress. This is a terribly important function that is rarely discussed. But I feel it is one of the most important roles of a Chief Executive. They are a living link to the Group Board. If a CE does this well, always sensitive to how things might be received, then it is likely that relationships with the Board will be harmonious and business-like. On the other hand an Executive team which simply does the job and presents its work may find that it is at loggerheads with the other team, who may fight back with their own views and approaches. If the CE works as a conscious Group Board member in the midst of day to day decision making by the executive then, to a large extent, tension and disagreement can be avoided.

Unsurprisingly the same goes for the Chair. Through regular discussions with the CE, and other Executives as required, the Chair needs to understand the stresses and strains of the organisation, the views and approaches of the Executive Board. Of course they are not of always of paramount consideration, but they are important in creating an effective organisation. This is one reason why being truthful and open with Board members is so vital – if they don’t understand or empathise with the senior team then their demands may be unrealistic or unreasonable. There needs to be a strong, underlying coherence in the view of both Boards, co-created, realistic, expert and deliverable.

In a similar way to the CE holding the Board view in his or her head, I believe the Chair needs to have an advanced understanding of the organisation in his or her head. They have a greater understanding of the issues in the round due to the time they spend with the CE and Executive. This understanding ensures that they can moderate any outlying or unreasonable views of board members, ensuring a sensible consensus is reached during Board meetings.

The relationship between Chair and CE is subtle, alive, flexible and sensitive. It is based on careful listening and reflection, above all. It is intimately connected to the two groups that legitimise it – the Group and Executive Boards. It is a two part harmony, a duet that brings leadership alive.

Trust and Loss during Merger Integration

Currently we are involved in a protracted post-merger integration process at Notting Hill Genesis. It’s challenging work, and after nine months I have some feedback to share.

We decided to think about the two year integration programme as essentially one o “transition”, where our expectations were decidedly different from running a steady state organisation. This transition period was carefully conceived with proper planning and execution, so as to avoid the crisis mode/melt down/fire fighting panic that could otherwise have resulted. The Executive Board set up transitional planning, supported by a transitional management structures and systems. Very conscious planning for change and for feelings was our central concern, and meant all of us staying close to the feelings of the organisation and focus on empowering staff. This was absolutely critical to ensure that business as usual was kept as “normal” as possible. I am pleased to say that as a result of this planning effort (of both technical and emotional matters) staff continued to enjoy the ability to act autonomously, and responsibly.

The most important lesson for me is that the success or failure of the integration plan comes down to the psychological issues our people face in making the changes. Compared to this the technical, financial, systems and other issues are challenging but manageable.

In a previous merger experience I witnessed many people walking around in a daze. Very distressing for the individuals concerned, but also devastating in terms of productivity. Not surprising when you consider the disruption involved in an amalgamation

  • change on an unprecedented scale
  •  the loss of familiar colleagues who we had developed and relied on
  • a lack of useful and reliable information
  • the loss of power

This is not only very distressing for all of us as individuals;  it also means we are not really able do any work; business as usual, and performance, suffers.

We need to acknowledge that merger activity causes widespread psychological upheaval, and the Board and senior management need to plan for this. Most mergers fail to address the psychological needs of the staff and therefore offer little help as the organisation moves through predictable sequences of social and psychological conflicts that result from upheaval. To help our staff regain trust, autonomy and the ability to take the initiative requires conscious work by the management. Without it the merger will fail. Staff regress and it is impossible to restore the strength or commitment of employees.

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Managers’ meeting at NHG

Like any major change process, the integration of two organisations post merger/acquisition fundamentally disrupts equilibrium at both the individual and organisational level. Old psychological contracts are broken, loyalties and informal networks are undermined and the shared sense of purpose and direction is often lost.

In my experience the only thing which sustains people during this difficult transition is their trust in the leadership of the organisation. That we know why we are doing it, what we are doing and that it is the right way forward. That we are doing it for the right reasons and that we will do our upmost to look after our staff. This is the basic issue of trusting in the organisiaton and its leadership despite a huge change agenda.

I will go home tonight, at the usual time, to the same flat I left this morning and nothing has been moved, or destroyed. The same people (my partner and my children, for example) arrive at the same place,  at a roughly predictable time and behave in a way that I would broadly expect. Our survival assumes that the vast majority of what we experience and rely on can be trusted.

And it is the same at work. All of us want, and need,  to know that the new environment is at least as stable, predictable and caring as the one we used to inhabit. Our individual sense of security and well-being is based on trusting that things won’t change!

Merger for me personally meant I had to adapt to working with a new team, with a new boss, with a different span of control and often in a different place. I lost colleagues I loved working with. And taken-for-granted systems of communication and culture were renegotiated and changed.  Despite my own central role in making our merger happen I was inevitably traumatised by the experience. Imagine how it feels for those with much less control.

It takes several months of lived experience to get settled and know that the new management is no worse than we had before. It may be too much to hope that it is better. Managers should emphasis continuity and safety more than the enormous opportunities or the sunny uplands.  Until we secure the basic trust of our colleagues, commitment will be tentative and conditional. Despite being physically present, insecure and frightened colleagues cannot commit to doing the job. An anxious staff group (we have around 3000 employees) will not even be able to carry out the same job they were doing the day before merger as a result of the insecurity and fear they will all be feeling. The disruptive effects of major reorganisation can only be tolerated if we trust those who are in charge and have a feeling that things will be OK in the end. All our teams needed to believe that our strategy makes sense and that we are genuine, and doing this for the best.  Over time things will improve and may even deliver a better service and a more interesting job in the future. The organisation needs time and understanding to recover from the full frontal impact of a merger.

This loss of trust does not have to turn into mistrust. But senior managers have to work on it, proving again and again that they can be trusted. This comes from honesty and a willingness to work through the change process with those affected. Over time the trust comes back but huge effort needs to go into sincere and regular reassurance, listening and communication – plus a culture of staff engagement and widespread involvement of a large number of people in making the change plan. Senior mangers need to be open to what they see and hear and act to make changes to plans so that everyone can bear the necessary changes. At NHG we changed both the time table and cost savings targets to take some of the pressure off. While we want the integration achieved as quickly as possible (we have given ourselves two to three years) we are also willing for it to be as slow as is necessary.

Along side the issue of trust and safety, which is the most important factor, is the issue of grief and loss. This is not only about people. We experienced very significant reaction to the decision to remove a particular IT system. This might seem to be rather illogical. It is rarely sensible to run two different systems alongside each other. The two systems were of course examined and costed and a rational decision was made. However the people who were losing their system were  upset. We learnt that we needed to acknowledge the loss of retired systems because even though they were “technical” colleagues had worked hard on making them work for years, spending time and money on improving them. As well as having proper (and standard) farewells for those that moved on we realised that inanimate objects also needed to be decommissioned with care. We needed to acknowledge the loss of each business streams, approach and system because we realised that our people had made a significant emotional investment.

I realised that grief is a normal response to loss and it is important to manage the mourning process humanely, even if it seems “irrational” or “minor” to the manager. If people are not allowed to speak about things they have lost, or they do not meet with any empathy, then their feelings can turn into depression and withdrawal. Just before Christmas I realised that a ritual established in Notting Hill Housing (giving staff cakes and a thank you on the organisation’s birthday) had been lost, and I felt a real sense of regret and sadness.

The loss that we all experience in a merger (or any major change process) reignites our deep seated fears of losing people and things that we are deeply and emotionally attached to. And having these attachments underlies our ability to trust. This is why we needed to ask managers, who are strong, rational and often guided by value for money considerations, to take time to understand and acknowledge the grief a number of colleagues experienced. Managers have had to work hard to stay close to our staff throughout the experience so that their capacity for trust in the organisation and its mission is enhanced, restores their ability to act autonomously and reactivates their desire to take the initiative.