Managing Conflict in Organizational Mergers

By Eben Weitzman, Ph.D.

Just 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 the kinds of conflicts that are almost inevitable, and that’s the focus of this piece.  

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 (there is usually only one president after a merger, for example).  

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—perhaps publicly, and/or over the course of a full career—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.”  

Conflict Resolution

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

  1.  Create “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.  It is, in fact, holding shared goals that defines the psychological experience of “the group.”
  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. Think “outside the box.”  When parties in conflict can let go of the winners & losers frame, they 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 to the most well-intentioned of colleagues working at cross purposes, stepping on each other’s toes.  
  5. Solicit input and take it seriously.  As your two organizations become one, one of your biggest challenges—differences in perspective—can also be one of your greatest advantages, if you use it well.  Even people who are losing power and are mad about it can have valuable insight and information to offer.  And 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 the 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 to 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 go through the added effort of working 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 conflict does not have to mean putting everything on the table.  And if there are things that you absolutely cannot afford to negotiate—such as we are still going to have financial audits, or we are committed to 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, respect people’s interests, and take their input seriously, 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 allow you to manage inevitable conflict in a way that leads to better decisions, builds stronger commitment to the new organization, and allows you to maintain your integrity, relationships and leadership.

Note:  These musings emerged from a collaboration with my friends and colleagues George Gates, Brenda Jones, Nick Mann, and Anthony Miles on a broader effort on mergers almost 10 years ago.  I am indebted to them for their wisdom, experience, collaboration, and friendship.