Applying comedic theory to your internal M&A Comms – no kidding

Apply the underlying tenets of humor and comedic theory to help people feel they’re part of a team.

Ann Barlow is the President of Peppercomm’s West Coast practice, where she leads the agency’s employee engagement practice.

As interest rates stabilize and economic indicators remain strong, more mergers and acquisitions are likely to happen in the second half of 2023, according to PwC. Companies are depending on acquisitions to help drive growth and seize on the potential of generative AI. The potential is exciting, and many of these unions will produce happy outcomes that beyond shareholder windfalls. Still, for employees, being merged into a new organization can be strange, disruptive and upsetting. That’s why a solid internal communications strategy is so important, not just on day one but long after the deal is inked. What you might be surprised to learn is what a little humor can do to ease the way.

That doesn’t mean you should now consider turning your internal M&A communications strategy into a comedy script. Instead, the idea is to apply the underlying tenets of humor and comedic theory to helping people feel they’re part of a team, that they belong:

  • One of the tenets of improv is to create a sense of psychological safety (see Prof. Amy Edmondson’s excellent TED Talk if you’re unfamiliar), so participants feel free to explore ideas and suggest different approaches, knowing they can expect a ‘yes and’ response. Businesses often reasonably expect new colleagues to fall in line with the larger organization’s way of doing things. But your new colleagues bring different experiences and thinking and if you create a safe environment for them to offer suggestions and share their own ways of doing things, everyone can benefit.
  • Successful comedians are highly skilled at reading their audiences’ cues and course correcting as they go based on audience input. You and your executive team may have spent hours preparing and practicing messaging for your new colleagues, but sometimes – if an executive is attuned to audience reaction – either the audience doesn’t get what you’re saying or isn’t buying in just yet. When they’re talking with the new team or the newly combined employee group, urge your executives to be ready to stop and acknowledge how people might be feeling, or to ask about questions or concerns they have.
  • Improv actors take a positive approach from the outset with a truly, ‘yes, and’ mindset. If you’ve done this exercise with the guidance of skilled coaches, you know how dramatically a conversation, even an entire culture, can shift. Work with your executives to solicit input and feedback from employees, new and existing, regarding the acquisition and watch how fast the tone changes – and how much faster you come up with new solutions.
  • In sketch comedy, performers tell stories using exaggeration or distortion to address a shared experience or concern. Think Chris Farley as motivational speaker Matt Foley or Keegan Michael Key as substitute teacher Mr. Garvey. This doesn’t mean suggesting your executives start telling people they could end up in a van down by the river, but they could have a little fun with the usual tropes that might be ascribed to them or your organization. In the case of the large banks referenced above for example, executives could tell new employees they can look forward to getting their own shipment of branded red tape along with an org chart of the 76 layers of management.
  • Finally, combining two of the best tenets of improv can help you move the conversation and, more important, the business forward: accepting others’ ideas and building on them, and succeeding as a team. Once your colleagues have had an opportunity to express their feelings and feel heard, you can apply these final tenets to co-create the future. Work with your leaders to bring new and legacy employees together, senior leaders and individual contributors, to brainstorm and create plans in an open, ‘yes, and’ environment. Done right, you’ll have a lot of fun in the process. Then, watch the buy-in you’ll get and the motivation you’ll see when people feel they’ve had a voice in planning for the business.

Applying these underlying tenets of humor and comedic theory to your communications strategy can help to ease the post-M&A transition, helping your new colleagues to actively engage and contribute more quickly to the organization.

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