I went through a difficult transition as manager during the acquisition of 3Com by U.S. Robotics, where I was working at that time. As I described in an earlier article, that experience was frustrating and chaotic for everyone, but especially for managers.

Perhaps one of the departments hit hardest by the 3Com acquisition was IT. It was difficult to do any system rollouts in this environment, since executive management itself was fragmented and confused. The IT department was considered too heavy, and the department quickly started to lay off employees. The employees were discouraged at best, hostile at worst. Many of the IT managers left. But some stayed and survived. In fact, a few thrived.

If you find yourself in a similar situation of chaos and change, you can survive too.

Focus on yourself and getting through the stages of change
Your employees need your help; your boss needs you to be focused and productive. If your own head is reeling, you won’t be useful to anyone. So, first off, you need to understand that it’s normal to be uncomfortable during times of change.

In their book called Life Changes: Growing Through Personal Transitions, Sabina Spencer and John Adams outline the seven stages of transition:

  1. Losing focus, or panicking
  2. Minimizing the impact, or denial
  3. The Pit (feeling out of control and incompetent)
  4. Letting go of the past and taking a leap of faith
  5. Testing new limits
  6. Searching for meaning
  7. Integrating (reaching a common vision)

At the onset of large organizational change, people minimize the impact. During the acquisition of U.S. Robotics, I saw a lot of this phenomenon. Some people acted like the acquisition was just a minor distraction and everything was perfectly fine. But those in denial were hit with the reality sooner or later. Changes affect everyone, and you can’t just brush them away.

Once people pass through the denial stage, they generally slide down into The Pit. At this stage, people experience the true impact of the change; they feel angry, sad, or fearful. Once people make it through this stage, things start to get better.

As your team members start to climb out of The Pit, they go through a series of stages in which they let go of the past and feel more in control than they’ve felt in a while. Ultimately, they reach the final stage, integrating, where the change no longer dominates their thoughts. At this point, people are feeling comfortable with the way things are.

Unfortunately, you can’t just jump from the first stage to the last. You can, though, help yourself get through the stages. In fact, just knowing that the stages are inevitable can ease your transition.

Establish and use lines of communications
Your employees are starving for information and they’re worried. They can’t focus on the actual work at hand until they’ve had enough opportunity to vent, gossip, and worry some more. The best thing you can do for your employees and your boss is to keep your employees informed.

This can be tricky, of course, especially if your boss isn’t keeping you informed. Getting accurate information and sharing it with your employees should be your number-one concern. Talk to your boss constantly. Convince him that this information will have a direct correlation on productivity, even if it’s bad news. Your employees are smart, capable people and they need to know what’s going to happen. Employees are more likely to stick it out with your company if you are honest and treat them with respect.

Be forewarned that the information you discriminate has to be real. I remember one manager who, when confronted with the question “Will there be more layoffs?” answered with his heart instead of his head. He thought the company was done with layoffs. Well, 12 weeks later, there was another layoff and this manager lost all credibility. He meant well. But his staff didn’t trust him anymore.

I’ve also seen managers handle this dilemma well. When asked about layoffs, they’ve said, “I don’t know. I hope not. But there are no guarantees right now. We need to be prepared for more changes. So let’s figure out how to do everything we can to prevent a layoff. How can we be more productive? What can we do right now to help this company and make a positive difference?”

Set short-term goals and find ways for your team to have early wins
It’s nearly impossible to be strategic during an acquisition. The management teams have so much to sort out, it’s all they can do to keep the company together and create a new organization. So limit your expectations. Ask yourself what your department can do right now to add value. Are there some very basic but useful tasks you can perform? Find something, get your team involved, set short-term deadlines, and make a big deal about their successes.

You’re trying to move your team’s focus off of the new acquisition to a sense of accomplishment and (albeit limited) control.

Understand the stages of change and what your employees are going through
As the manager, you need to be empathetic about what your employees are dealing with. Each person will respond to the acquisition or merger differently and on a different timeline. The better able you are to listen to your team members, the better off your department will be.

Your employees might not understand what they’re going through. Talk to them about the stages of change. Let people vent for a while, but not too long, or it will drag those down who’ve already passed through The Pit and are feeling optimistic again!

Managers are often reluctant to truly listen to their employees for fear that they can’t answer their concerns. The problem is, you don’t really know unless you listen. Maybe you can solve a problem here or there. Knowledge is power, so listen, listen, listen.

Rerecruit your key people
Many of your employees are considering a job change right now. You know it, and they know it. So take stock and figure out which employees you really can’t afford to lose. If one of your top performers can’t get past his negativity about the acquisition, you’re going to have to let go of him. You don’t have the time or the ability to move the malcontents to a place of commitment and productivity. Instead, look for those people who are able to focus and want to deliver.

Then, do everything you can to rerecruit those individuals. Let them know how important they are to you and the company. If you can, find ways to reward them through promotions—believe it or not, sometimes things are so chaotic during an acquisition, you can slide promotions or bonuses through that usually might be tough to do—rewards, or training opportunities. Let your boss and HR know that these folks are crucial and the company has to do whatever it can to keep them. They’ll get you through your own tough transition.