How Blended Families are Like Blended Corporate Culture

Did you know that 40% of married couples with children in the U.S. are step-couples? That’s 100 million Americans who have a step-relationship. Blended families are more prevalent in today’s culture than they were 30 years ago. So what does this have to do with organizations and corporate cultures? A lot, actually.

I am fortunate to have been in my step-children’s life for seven years. I have always been around kids, loved kids and dreamt about being a mom someday, but the role of step-mom hadn’t really crossed my mind until I met my husband. Navigating the waters of what the ‘culture’ of their household was, the relationships with my husband and their mom, and my role within this new family was tricky at times.

As an HR/OD professional, I worked for a growing manufacturing company for many years and was able to be involved in the acquisition and integration of several organizations. With each acquisition, our company learned more and more about integrating organizations and their corporate cultures. As with my family, navigating the waters of our culture as the acquirer, and trying to understand both the culture of the company we were purchasing and how the two would come together was complex. Organizations often discount the importance of blending cultures. The integration process can be costly if done ineffectively and few organizations do it well.

Through my experiences, there are four things I learned from being in a blended family that apply to merging cultures in business:

1. Identify the unspoken rules. As I began my relationship with my husband and step-kids, it was important for me to understand what the unspoken rules were in their family. There were simple things, such as bedtime routines, discipline, foods they liked and didn’t like, and what activities they enjoyed doing together. There were unspoken rules when I would eventually meet their mom, how we would interact, and what our relationship would look like. It was also during that time that I was making a decision on if I could fit into the family structure or not.

The same goes for organizations. Any organization, like a family, has unspoken rules. Sometimes they are easy to recognize, but other times they aren’t, and you may step on some landmines. So how do you really understand what they are in both the acquiring company and those being acquired? Observe and ask questions. Spend time talking with employees to fully understand what the values and workplace culture are in an organization and how things really work. Those will tell you how to more effectively navigate through change. As employees are interacting through an integration, they are making a decision if they should stay or not. There are certain values and beliefs we each have that we shouldn’t be willing to compromise even as we are blending corporate cultures or, in my case, blending families. Those are the non-negotiables, and understanding what those are and if they can fit in to this new role and culture is a critical decision during any merger. Can they live within the culture and values of the new organization or are they going to opt out? Could I live within the culture and values of this new family unit?

2. Be flexible and have empathy. There were certainly family values that I brought into the relationship with both my husband and step-kids. Some were similar to his, but there were some differences. Through discussion, trial, and error, we had to flesh out those differences and define the ‘culture’ we wanted for our family. No family or person is perfect, so being flexible and having empathy is really an important role.

As organizational cultures merge together, each brings their own set of values, and it becomes important for not only leaders, but all employees to be humble and have empathy for one another going through the change. It is change for everyone and that can be difficult. Being flexible to figure out ‘the new norm’ is helpful during these transitions. When empathy and flexibility is ignored, resistance is created, which leads to opposition on both sides toward any change. The more we resist, the more walls that can go up between individuals, teams, and departments.

3. Understand your role and identity in the culture. As I went from ‘girlfriend’ to ‘wife/step-mom’, my role changed and continued to evolve. There was a period when we first got married that, although I had been involved in many aspects of the kids’ lives, I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a step-mom. What should I be involved in? Was I allowed to have an opinion on school, activities, discipline, etc.? As someone who likes clarity, it was important for me to have those conversations with both my husband and the kids’ mom so that I could understand. This was new for her as well.

You will have to redefine what your role as a leader is during the integration and as the company moves forward. The organization is changing and so should you as a leader. How you led yesterday is not how you lead tomorrow. Employees and other leaders are watching to see how you act. Are you living out the values? Are you being consistent or inconsistent? Redefining your role and identity is crucial. Do they match with your own values structure and non-negotiables? Whether you are on the acquiring side or being acquired, your environment is changing and you are changing with it.

4. Communication is king. Communication is key for our family, especially as the kids get more involved in extracurricular activities and want to spend more time with their friends. We spend a great deal of time communicating between households and with the kids on what the week holds, schedules, activities, expenses, etc. This was a lesson that we have learned and continue to learn about in our relationship with each other as parents and how we co-parent. When communication lacks, frustration and tension increase, usually resulting in a blow-up of some sort. While it’s not always pretty and we don’t always agree, we do work hard at being on the same page to provide as much consistency for the kids as we can.

Just as communication is important for us as parents and with the kids, the same can be said for leaders and employees. Do we as co-parents share everything with the kids? No. But the more we are consistent in what we expect, what is shared, and how we talk about each other, the more stable of an environment it provides for the kids. They are then able to roll with the changes when they happen, but are still able to feel safe and secure. Employees need that same consistency, safety, and security from their leaders. Change is inevitable, but if you are consistent with expectations, shared values, and how change is communicated, change becomes easier to navigate as you work through an integration.

There have been some really great moments in our family, and definitely some moments that we have all learned from. As much as we try to be consistent, there are different cultures and rules at each household. None of us can underestimate how we all have to maintain some flexibility, especially the kids as they spend time in both worlds. As organizations grow, it’s important to understand the current identity as well as how to have flexibility to maintain some of what’s made you successful, while also allowing room to learn from differences.

Navigating the change of cultural integration can be difficult especially considering, “83% of all mergers and acquisitions failed to produce any benefit for the shareholders and over half actually destroyed value. Interviews of over 100 senior executives involved in 700 deals revealed the overwhelming cause for failure was the people and cultural differences.” (KPMG Study)

It can be difficult to maintain objectivity when two corporate cultures collide.  Utech provides customized organizational development for organizations of all sizes.  We have an experienced culture integration team to facilitate the due diligence needed during the integration process.  Contact us today!