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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #166: When Two Cultures Clash

December 16, 2021
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #166: When Two Cultures Clash

Whether you are partnering or merging with another organization, there is always a risk that the two cultures will clash. Today, Chris and Perry talk about what leaders can do to minimize or eliminate “culture clash.”

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Read the Transcript:

Perry Holley:    Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership podcast, for our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley at John Maxwell, facilitator and coach.

Chris Goede:     And I’m Chris Goede, vice president with John Maxwell Company. Welcome, and thank you for joining. As we get started today, I just want to remind you to visit There you can learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership, 360 degree leader content. Things that we just have the privilege of doing in organizations around the world to help with leadership culture and address a lot of the leadership competencies that we all struggle with. We say that because Perry and I-

Perry Holley:    Where do you think this content comes from?

Chris Goede:     Yeah, that’s right. We’re in an organization and this is stuff that we live out well. I’m excited to really talk out today’s topic, because it actually comes from one of our listeners. It’s a question and that’s why I give you that URL. If you have a question or a thought or maybe something you’re just working through, you’d like Perry and I to talk about and back and forth, give you some principles, man, want to encourage you to do that. And you can leave that information there at that site. Well, today’s topic is based off of a listener question. Sharon, thank you so much for sending this into us. And what Perry has done is taken your question and created a title, which you know is my favorite part of the day. And our producer, Jake, actually even helped us with this conversation.

­So we’re going to talk about cultures. We’re going to talk about when two cultures clash. Now I love this because, Sharon, you are not the only one going through this. Matter of fact, we see probably three different situations where cultures clash very often and there’s a tension and there’s a burden put on them. Number one, any time you have a union involved. That’s always a fun conversation for us. We’re dealing with culture. Number two, explosive growth. When organizations go through that, there’s tension on the culture. And three, to your point today, Sharon, and your question for us is when we go through a merger and acquisition. This is really what’s happening here. And Sharon goes on to say that one of the cultures is very customer service driven and the other one is what we would call level three, very task driven. And now that they’re coming together, there’s all kinds of challenges that they’re facing both from leadership and the team members. And so looking forward to digging into this with you today, Perry.

Perry Holley:    Yeah. And that’s not that either culture’s wrong. It’s just when they together, it’s going to be some friction. I was intrigued because, I don’t know if the listeners know, but I spent a lot of years with IBM and one thing IBM we would do was we would buy companies, smaller companies and with a lot of merging and acquiring going on, to buy services and skills that were needed, very specialized product or skill area type of thing. But over the first few months I was on an integration team a couple of times, and over the first few months we’d have these new relationships. All of a sudden, a large percentage of the newly acquired employees would leave or resign or kind of filter away. And it just wasn’t a culture fit for them.

I recall actually coming in to see you one day and we were doing something and one of you got a new sales guy and he said he just came from IBM. I thought, “What did you do at IBM?” “Well, I really wasn’t with IBM. I was acquired and I don’t want to be there.” I thought, it was a clash right away. So it’s very interesting. It happens quite a bit.

Chris Goede:     Yeah. And even in that case, remember us having conversations about that particular situation and to where you look at the two different organizations, the one that got bought out at the time by IBM, to where you look at, and you know this very well, IBM is very structured, hierarchical, to where the other one that they acquired, the gentleman we were talking about was very innovative, edgy, young, agile, and that’s not a big blue. So IBM communicated a lot through chat and instant messaging, where the new company, they were all face to face. And it was this level two highly relational communication. And so everything from even down to dress code and pays and benefits, vacation, policies, all of that. So-

Perry Holley:    Should IBM want to allow flip flops?

Chris Goede:     Yeah. That’s right. No. No. So what looked good on paper as this smaller company was joining IBM, in this case, the real issue became when the people got into the mix and all kinds of challenges there.

Perry Holley:    Well, I saw at Harvard Business Review use a interesting phrase if you want to, how to think about this was, they said, “One of them was tightness versus looseness.” And you could, whichever company, I think IBM would have been the tightness one on that one. But yeah, for me, figuring out that when I asked some of these folks why they were leaving IBM and seemed like a great opportunity, they were recognized heavily for what they had done, the company had been purchased, but they just don’t want to work in that culture. People being a culture fit is a big deal. And so I thought what we could do today is really look at what would you do if you were the leader in this case and have these two cultures coming in, is there a way to recover that? And I think there is.

Chris Goede:     Yeah. Absolutely. And you have to remember too, sometimes in this situation, the individuals are not a good fit when it comes to the organizations. The other part of that is what we do, I think, in protection of ourselves around change, because we all fear change. And you and I have talked several times on this podcast about that as a leader. And so really the change becomes the big problem of the two companies coming together and how we react to that is a direct effect of what’s going to happen with that culture.

Perry Holley:    Right. And so I started looking at that over the years, especially in my executive coaching found that change is a big thing we coach around and that it’s always been said, people hate change, but you think about it for a moment. If you didn’t change, you’d never do anything.

Chris Goede:     That’s right.

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Perry Holley:    You wouldn’t go anywhere. You wouldn’t do anything. So change is a constant part of what we do. What I’ve learned is that people, what they hate is the feeling of losing control. And that it’s really not the change. the change is invoking a feeling of losing control. And that’s what I hate and people will do and say all kinds of things to avoid losing control, to gain more control, to stop from losing control. Anything that… I always want to maintain my control. And I’m thinking as a leader, one thing I would look for in any type of situation where there’s heavy change, like two cultures coming together, is address the feelings of losing control.

Can you help people get through some of those big changes that these are going to affect their life? You’re coming into a big company or a small company coming into a larger. How is that going to affect how they feel about how much control they have? You think about it just for a moment. It’s like, wow, that could be like spinning out of control. How can I help them as a leader? Can I bring them back to my information, giving them insights, listening, sharing some of the things. We’ll talk about some other tactics here in a moment. But I just found if I can just move away from, it’s not the change I’m avoiding, it’s the feeling of losing the control I’m avoiding. And as a leader, can I help you with your feeling of control?

Chris Goede:     Yeah. And what’s the first question everybody asks about any type of change? “How does this affect me?” Right? And so you have to understand, not only as leaders, are you asking that question because by the way, your flush is asking that question, so is every single person on that team and in the culture. So we know, as I mentioned, the tension that’s on cultures, the three areas that that happens. We said mergers and acquisitions. We also know that almost for 50% of mergers fail and even more than that, over 80% of them don’t even produce what the shareholders thought that they were going to get during that merger. And so, man, this is a tough challenge. And so grateful again, that the question came in from Sharon about this. So we can just unpack this a little it and talk, from a leadership perspective, how we think we can help with that.A lot of times in preparation for this, mergers, there’s a lot of things that can be done. One of the things I want to mention right away is as you’re going through this is to better understand why, the why behind what’s going on, the why for the merger, why are the teams coming together? Why do certain teams do certain things? Mark Cole, our CEO, I just mentioned this to him yesterday. He always makes this comment. I kind of made the statement back to him, which is like, “Hey, make sure you understand why the fences were built before you go tearing them down.” There’s also another analogy around hospitals, right? Like it’s better to build a fence at the top and a hospital at the bottom. But understand the why behind the merger, the teams and why teams are doing certain things. And I think, we just wanted to kind of back up before we got started into these principles that Perry’s going to bring to us and just make sure that you, both sides, are open to the perspective of the why.

Perry Holley:    Yeah. Trying to keep with my theme of five or six things. I thought that I would, I just was thinking through this and number one, won’t even as number one, because you already gave it away, is that if people know why things are happening and how it affects them personally, it helps a little bit with getting off to a good start on the culture, but there’s still a lot more to do that.

Number two, I think, really my number one is, do we share any values? When cultures come together, you just assume that the larger group’s values and you’ll ignore the smaller group’s values. It pays to do a little work I think in looking through all the values and seeing where is their commonality. Values are really our decision making filters. And what are the core values of an organization versus the people that are in that organization and how it develops that culture of how we do things here, often driven by those values.

So I love the first thing I was thinking through would be, are there any values we share? And shining some light on that because, having been in this situation, through the IBM acquisition route a number of times, it can look like it’s just the big one wins the little one loses and we’re not even going to pay attention to that. You call attention to what the values are. See these are the ones that we see from both sides, start to have some shared commonality. People start to say, “Hey, we matter.” And it starts to break down some of those walls.

Chris Goede:     John calls that the law of common ground. Find 1% and go 100% in on that. And I think what I love about that is that you’re talking about the values of the teams and the organizations coming together and find where there is that 1%. And then in all of the communication, make sure that that’s the focal point so that both sides, both teams, both organizations, feel like they have a voice.

Well number three that you have of the five, appreciate it’s number five, does the combined new team know what they want to be known for? I like how you brought this in here. I like how you did this. I hope Jeff’s listening. Maybe Jeff will send us in a comment or a question. Jeff Anderson, who is now a part of our league of extraordinary leaders, helping us with some of this content. But back in podcast 154, we actually talked about being a for or a from kind of leader, being a for or a from kind of leader. And I think that makes such a strong cultural statement when the team can come together and decide what they want to be known for. And so, as you begin thinking about maybe what you were known for separately, as we come together, what will we be known for? And then our customers, we want our customers to know that we are for them.

Perry Holley:    It’s huge to me. I love, as I was thinking through, when we were just talking to Jeff and to know what are you known for, thinking if I’m bringing two teams together, two separate cultures together, and they each have a way of doing things. As Sharon mentioned, one very customer focused, one very task focused. At the end of the day, we’re not going to be any focus if we’re not clear on what we do for the customer. So why are we coming together? We got that. What do we want to be known for? I think if you let those teams speak into that, and then we can apply, we’re going to need task approach, we’re going to need customer focus. But how does that approach come into, what do we want to be known for, versus what are we known for. There’s a gap there. We got to fix that.

Number four, I think that I’d like to use the word initiate, that leaders need to initiate this conversation. If I had to say there was often the work we do when two teams come together that we can de-prioritize the open and frequent communication with the teams. This is something, and especially, I know at IBM, when they were coming together, so many different moving parts and all that, people almost stopped talking. And I think it’s important for the leaders to initiate this conversation, initiate the conversation around why, initiate the conversations around the culture, the values, initiate the conversations around what do we want to be known for. Again, go back to what are we trying to reduce here. That feeling that I’m losing control and that I’m not going to be in control. So I’m going to put my foot down, I’m in control. That is going to be the clash of two cultures at that point. So I really want to open that communication, but I think… And it can’t be side conversation. The leader needs to be initiating those.

Chris Goede:     Yeah. What comes to mind is an organization where I’ve seen this done really well. And that was one of their points, which was how frequent they are communicating. It goes back to some things we’ve talked about in the past, in regards to going through the pandemic and everybody going virtual, which was, they care more about hearing your voice than what you have to say. I think Andy Stanley said that and we kind of… And that’s so true. But one of the things, and you talk about this real quick in number four here, with initiating and doing it frequently, make sure that if you’re leading this and have the ability to communicate, no matter what’s happening above you, make sure whatever your leadership responsibility is, you’re doing it with your team and communicating frequently.

One of the things they did really well was they would identify the problems with the merger, communicate about them. They would share the problems that they’re facing while they’re trying to solve them. And then they gave updates. And if you just continue to do that, that helps soften that merger of the two different cultures. So make sure you’re communicating frequently with that.

Well, number five is promote relationship building activities with the newly combined team. I think this is something right out of our book of a level two activity… Perry and I will sign up for any type of relationship building. Matter of fact, Jake, even before we started recording today, he was like, “You two need to stop talking. We got to get to work.”Perry Holley:    Trying to do a mic check.

Chris Goede:     That’s right. Yeah. That’s right. And so man, allow people on the team to get to know each other. You mentioned something earlier. I made a comment here or wrote down a little comment, said create cross-functional teams specific to solving and discussing culture problems, not processes, not systems, not debating on the new name of the company, all kind of stuff, like culture issues. You had talked about earlier as we kicked off this podcast about being a part of integration teams at IBM and how do you do that. Just make sure that if you do that, don’t do it in a way to where it’s all about systems and processes, do it in a way to where you create cross-functional teams around this. But I love this relationship building with the newly combined teams.

Perry Holley:    Well, it could be difficult these times when we’re a lot of remote and often when you bring two companies together, they’re not in the same place. So how are you going to do that? You need to be intentional, a little creative about… I just was reading somewhere, they flew people to get together to make sure that they overcame some of that. So you can meet each other. That may not be possible, but can we do some creative things on web meetings? Can we make some fun things on web meetings? Can we have some contests or some competitions on web meetings? Can we just get to know each other? Sometimes it breaks down those barriers.

I will throw in a number six, because I think it’s around the word celebrate that a lot of times people are looking for what’s optimal and this is not optimal and they run, but nothing’s ever optimal. Can I just say that out loud? Nothing’s optimal. But what’s possible? So celebrate what’s now possible because we are one team. I know we’re going through a bit of that at The John Maxwell Enterprise and about, we had a bunch of different parts and people doing their part, but now we want to act as one team. So what does that make possible? You can focus on the glass half empty, well not what we used to do. Yeah. But look what’s possible now.

Chris Goede:     That’s good.

Perry Holley:    Kind of the way we came out of the pandemic was, wow, we had to shut a lot of things down. Well, what did that make possible? I think John talked a lot about that in leading in tough times, helping people aspire to a bigger purpose, bigger than themselves. Because when you get into a situation like this, let’s just face it, like he’s said, what house is going to affect me? Well, that’s interesting, but it’s not the big question. It’s really, what does this make possible for me and for my team and for our organization and give them a future that they can believe in, give them a voice on how to activate that future. And you’ll be surprised by how people really want to do something bigger than them and they’ll buy in.

Chris Goede:     Yeah. Listen, I want to go back to that comment. You just had me thinking, as you were talking about that, of what we’re going through as an enterprise. We are bringing multiple cultures together, different teams and going through all that. I think it’s so key to exploit any opportunity to bring them together. You may not be able to afford this. You made this comment about flying teams together, but I remember last year, Mark, our CEO, was like, “Wasn’t a great year for everybody. We felt the effect too.” We were going through this merger of teams has had different cultures. He basically said, “No, no, no, no. We’re going to fly every single person in for the Christmas party. We’re going to get together. We’re going to hang out, all kind of stuff.” And we were like, “Right, well, the P&L might not support that, but it doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. The culture’s important. And so he was just taking the chance to exploit that. So I think that’s absolutely huge. And as you celebrate, not only what’s possible, I also want to encourage you to celebrate the small wins along the way. Bring it to their attention so that they know we’re making progress because, believe me, the problems and the issues they’re going to have attention. And if that’s what they’re focused on, that’s going to be a problem. And so we need to make sure that we celebrate the small wins, bring it to their attention. Maybe do some case studies, maybe show some videos, whatever it is of the positive movement that’s happening as you bring these two cultures together, specifically, Sharon, as you mentioned about bringing this customer service culture with the task, very task completion, there is a happy medium.

And so we hope that some of our conversation helped you today, maybe gave you a nugget or two. We’re grateful that you would actually send in that question for us to be able to throw back and forth. But as we wrap up, listen, a couple of closing thoughts. Number one, give it time. Listen, I know we’re in a world of-

Perry Holley:    Hurry, hurry, hurry.

Chris Goede:     Hurry, hurry. How many times do we hit refresh on our Twitter, on our Instagram, on our email. This is not easy. So give it time. It’s not going to happen overnight and be patient with it. And then just make sure that you, going back to my celebrate what’s going on, make sure you communicate and monitor and talk about the progress you’re making, because that will go a long way in making people feel more comfortable with the two different types of culture.

Perry Holley:    Well, definitely no silver bullet on this one. There’s a lot of different moving parts and you’re going to have to try some things, but again, great conversation. Thank you. As a reminder, if you’d like to learn more about the five levels of leadership or any of the other offerings, you’d like to have the learner guide for this episode, you can find all that at You can also leave a comment or a question for us there. We do love hearing for you, and we’re very grateful you would spend this time with us each week. That’s all today from the John Maxwell Executive Leadership podcast.

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