As I was driving back from a meeting yesterday, an NPR reportage caught my attention. It was about the suicide rate in Greenland, which is the highest in the world. You can listen to the program here.
It’s not the dark that kills people, and it’s not poverty. In fact, and in their not too distant history, they had one of the lowest suicide rates. What causes this nasty phenomenon is culture, or lack thereof.
You see, Greenland is part of Denmark. As you can imagine, even if you never traveled to either countries, they have vastly different cultures. European Viking heritage vs. Inuit decendancy.
The first thing that Danish colonialists did was try to develop the economy by introducing industrialized fishing. Trawlers and fish processing factories replaced the kayaks and hunters. And while some people got rich, the traditional Inuit collective hunter gatherer economy was destroyed.
Then, in the 70’s, Denmark decided to close all the small villages. You could stay if you wanted, but there would no longer be any services available to you — no electricity, no emergency services, no mail, nothing. So most people who had not already done so in search of the fish processing jobs, were forced to move to the capital Nuuk. They were forced to leave their clapboard houses overlooking the sea for concrete apartment blocks in the city. They were Greenlandic speakers in a Danish speaking environment.
And that is when and where the problems started.
Many of the migrant kids were bullied in school — and adults who tried to continue to survive by their traditional ways were prejudiced and discriminated against.
There was a clash of cultures.
Inuits tried to assimilate, but in doing so they lost more than their language and their way of life. They lost their identity; their sense of belonging; their sense of purpose; their sense of “self.”
They gave up on life with many committing suicide.
So what can M&A folks learn from that?
When you take over another company, that company will have its own culture — which is likely to be very different from yours. They probably will have a different language, or a different set of languages — and rituals and habits that are vastly different from yours. They may have a different power-structure. Their values possibly do not align with yours.
All of that will result in individual employees having a vastly different sense of identity, and sense of self, than your employees have.
If you chose to force your culture on this new group of people, the way the Danish did with the Inuits, you probably won’t notice an increase in visible bullying, prejudice, discrimination, and eventually suicide rates in your company — although in extreme cases, I guess you might. But you will definitely have the more subtle bullying that can happen in the workplace, the ostracizing of the new company members, and other nasty side effects of poorly managed M&As. And while the newly acquired employees may not commit suicide, their loss of self, identity, and purpose, could lead to them becoming toxic assets within the new environment. Or they may simply walk out the door. Taking with them the most important asset that drove the M&A in the first place — their knowledge.