Setting Employee Expectations After a Shift in Ownership

September 22, 2017

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New owners frequently include the “nothing will change” promise in their opening remarks to the incumbent staff of a just-purchased business. Sometimes it’s the seller's attempt at making folks feel better ("Don't worry. They promised me that nothing will change.").

In the stress of the moment, this may seem like the right thing to say. It sounds calming and can be a confidence builder for the employees who have just been informed that they have a new boss. But in the long run, setting false expectations  can cause more problems than it solves.

Change in the Workplace

In any company, change is ongoing. Employees are asked to learn additional skills, systems are upgraded, procedures are rewritten, and people are promoted or terminated. Customers leave, and new accounts bring new demands. No experienced business owner in his or her right mind would ever promise employees that "Nothing will change."

Change is part of the landscape, and adjusting to it is inherent in keeping any business growing and relevant. Employees accept that fact unconsciously, because it's always been part of their landscape.

Of course, when an acquirer says "Nothing will change," they mean nothing will change today. There will inevitably be new procedures. Employees will have new reporting relationships or managers. Software will be modified or even discarded for completely new systems. And eventually, some employees will be promoted or terminated based on their ability to adjust.

New business owners must understand that the "Nothing will change" fallacy gives employees a license for dissatisfaction. As soon as they’re required to do anything out of the norm, they’ll most likely view leadership as dishonest and react negatively.“We have to learn a new telephone system.” ("He lied. This is a big change.") “They want us to invoice through the central office.” ("She lied. This is a massive change.") “We are all getting new job descriptions and titles.” ("They lied. Everything is changing!")

Demystify Change and be Realistic

The appropriate soother for acquisition anxiety is the truth. Acknowledge the coming changes so that employees will be prepared. Rather than pretending like everything will stay the same, try something like, "I know this is a big change, but you've faced great changes in this company before (get some examples from the seller) and your ability to adjust and succeed is what makes us so excited to be teaming up. We'll take things slowly to start, and work with you so that our integration will be as smooth and painless as possible."

There are no magic words that can completely eliminate employee concern. Dealing with it by promising something that isn't true is just incurring a long-term cost for a very short-term benefit. But being realistic about future challenges and changes can go a long way in developing a healthy relationship between leadership and employees that will be beneficial to the company’s future.

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John F. Dini

John F. Dini is a consultant and coach to hundreds of business owners, CEOs and Presidents of companies with over 11,000 hours of delivering face-to-face, personal advice to entrepreneurs. He is the author of three business books including Beating the Boomer Bust and 11 Things You Absolutely Need to Know About Selling Your Business, now in its second edition. He is a serial entrepreneur, but prefers the term “chronically unemployable.” John holds a BS in accounting from Rutgers University, and an MBA from Pepperdine University, and has six additional certifications in exit planning, business brokerage, behavioral analysis, medical practice management, facilitation and coaching. John writes numerous articles on small business topics for newspapers, magazines, and in his own blog at www.awakeat2oclock.com. He speaks frequently to business groups and national associations, and is a 15-year member of Jim Blasingame’s “Braintrust,” appearing regularly on “The Small Business Advocate,” a nationally syndicated radio program, as an expert in the issues of business ownership. His latest book, Hunting in a Farmer’s World: Celebrating the Mind of an Entrepreneur, has won recognition including “Best Business Book” at the New York Book Festival and the National Silver Medal for business books from the Independent Publishers’ Association.
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