M&A – wins and losses

M&A failure rates are as high as 80%, with evidence indicating that a significant contributing factor is neglect of the human element across the whole range of business relationships. “M&A is still regarded by many decision makers as an exclusively rational, financial and strategic activity, and not as a human collaboration” says Susan Cartwright (QFinance).

Customers and suppliers will have their own responses to news of a merger or an acquisition, but what happens with staff in situations of threat, real or perceived?

Our ancient brain still fires in response to a threat.  Fight or flight likely reactions include:


  • Excess adrenalin (meant to fuel muscles with blood and oxygen, diverting energy away from digestion) and cortisol (which affects blood sugar) lingers, triggering other hormone reactions
  • ‘Amygdala hijack’ – the midbrain’s 911 system puts the rational brain on hold


Fear, panic, anxiety, anger (even rage) – all debilitating and distracting, diverting energy and focus away from positive solutions and resourcefulness. This emotional rollercoaster plays havoc with hormones adding to excess cortisol, which in turn triggers sleep disturbance, stomach fat and other risk factors.


Circular thoughts loop,  fuelled by catastrophic self talk of worst case scenarios. Disassociation and withdrawal can fulfill the fear of diminishing opportunities.

These states are associated with errors and generalised workplace risk. There is an increased likelihood of emails sent to the wrong people, confidential information being inappropriately released, incorrect figures in quotations or reports, moodiness and impatience expressed in important client or colleague correspondence and forms of sabotage from petty pilfering to IP theft. These and other signs of disassociation, disconnect and dismissiveness are potentially disastrous for an organisation at a time of vulnerability……when excellent service, efficient delivery and market confidence are critical.

Contrast this with a true story:
A manager told of a time when the company had gone through (yet another) restructure. Her manager at the time had been so positive (aspirational) about the change that her team experienced this as a time of adventure and opportunity. She sharply contrasted their experience with that of other departments. It was how the department head framed the experience for them that determined how they thought, felt and acted – not how positively or negatively people were affected by the change.

Simply put, leadership determined the mental therefore emotional therefore physical reactions of those involved.

During times of uncertainty, leadership stays the course.
                “You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”  Theodore M. Hesburgh

In times of uncertainty, the temptation is to avoid people, cancel meetings (what if they ask questions we can’t answer?), disappear behind closed doors, say too much, not enough, the right thing at the wrong time or the wrong thing at the right time.


  • Increase adherence to rituals – this calms the midbrain
  • Create a positive, optimistic outlook as a leadership team (not in a Pollyanna sense but as a deliberate strategy)
  • Set (and honour) regular, distinct times to chat/vent. (One leader made 2pm on a Friday available for a ‘drop in’.)
  • Don’t feel you have to artificially create a safe haven. Say ‘I don’t know’ if you need to but also work to build self-belief and resourcefulness
  • Use words that keep people calm and positive, but also in touch with reality
  • Form a mental contract with the whole team to only add positive, helpful dialogue to the common space
  • Focus people on what is known/certain and on short term goals – e.g. the significance of what they do in the big picture; make this a daily re-commitment during the crisis peak

Better yet, build agile, resourceful, confident, positive people ahead of when its needed;  people who source security from their continually-growing capability rather than from an employer, role or function. Do this and you will not only have built a great reputation but created a powerful legacy.


About Cherri Holland

Fascinated with business, brains and how to use the brains on the payroll to make business buzz.
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