Mergers and acquisitions require the acknowledgement, discussion and management of change. However, change management can be challenging for organizations, as the success of the transition is deeply impacted by the support employees feel as they move from their current state to the often uncertain state of the new merged company.

Employees build perceptions of the change and its associated future based on the available information — what company leaders say (and do not say), what articles and press releases say, employee reviews from websites like Glassdoor, individuals’ previous experiences and existing attitudes, and even gossip. As a result, the best advice from change management experts is centered around communication and transparency. Learning and development (L&D), then, has an important role to play in helping leaders understand what to communicate, how to communicate and what it means to practice transparency. Because change involves every layer of the company, focusing on leaders first will help to ensure that the perception of the change is positive across the organization.

Helping Leaders Adapt

It is a mistake to assume that all leaders are adept at change management. Leaders who manage others need to identify how they will navigate the change themselves and how they will support their teams at the same time. Learning and development teams can encourage leaders to reflect on what the change means for them, as how they model the process will directly influence how their teams respond.

Develop a platform for managers to ask questions and receive direction, such as facilitated group discussions. Consider including an executive who is deeply involved in the integration process to provide context on the merger or acquisition. These sessions can provide managers with a safe space to learn from and lean on one another and give them practical advice on how to guide their team through change.

Training Leaders on Effective Communication

Learning and development should also provide training to leaders on how to communicate and demonstrate transparency. The training should emphasize the importance of open discussion with team members throughout the duration of the transition. In contrast with email or instant messaging, live, face-to-face dialogue (in a virtual or in-person environment) provides employees with the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings and gives managers the opportunity to understand how their team is coping with the changes. It also facilitates connection and togetherness, which is especially important during tumultuous times.

Training should also encourage leaders to be transparent in their communication, even if they have little information to share. L&D professionals should share that is OK for them to say, “I do not have that information yet” or, “I have information that I am not able to share at this time.” That said, leaders can educate themselves on the other company by perusing the website, reading press releases, scanning annual reports, and learning about its products or services — and they can encourage their employees to do the same. To make this information even more accessible, L&D professionals can add helpful websites and documents to an intranet page or learning management system (LMS).

Setting Expectations

Leaders should not ignore the value of setting expectations, and L&D professionals should coach leaders to be straightforward about the change that is guaranteed to happen with a merger or acquisition. Learning and development, in partnership with human resources (HR) business partners, can inform leaders about the value of expectation-setting and tie it back to communicating with the right amount of transparency. It is OK for them to say, “Some things will get harder, and some things will get easier” or, “The direct impact to each person and the entire team will become clearer over time.”

Leaders should not get caught up in the negatives, but they should not shy away from them, either. The learning and development team can help leaders build their talking points and provide insights into how to deliver news that might be perceived as negative. Most importantly, focusing on new opportunities and exciting challenges will help team members embrace the change and see their leader as an advocate. After all, the unity of two companies opens the door to career growth, stretch projects and promotional opportunities; learning and development teams can further support leaders and employees by pointing them to career growth resources and related training courses with instruction on how to establish short-term and long-term goals.

Lastly, support for change management must come from the top. Executives need to appreciate the impact of the merger or acquisition on employees and understand that initial perceptions may change as more information becomes available. Time to learn, discuss and plan for change requires their sponsorship and buy-in. They should enable the L&D team to offer activities that support emotional intelligence, active listening, accountability and commitment to transparency when possible. In addition, a well-organized pre- and post-merger training plan will empower leaders to create a softer landing for employees and set them up for immediate acceleration once the merger is complete.