02/20/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Mergers Mean Mastering High-Stakes Change; Four Emotional Triggers Leaders Must Pull

After a long, dry spell, mergers and acquisitions activity is heating up. American Airlines and US Airways want to combine to become the world's largest airline. Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital are buying out H.J. Heinz for $28 billion. And Liberty Global, media magnate John C. Malone's company, is set to buy the British cable business Virgin Media for $16 billion.

These mega-deals involving multibillion-dollar company takeovers and post-merger integrations represent very high-stakes change in terms of updated strategy, retention of top talent, and brilliant business execution. As Catamaran CEO Mark A. Thierer, whose pharmacy-benefit management company acquired six competitors since 2008, told The Wall Street Journal, "Keeping staffers clear about strategy amid acquisitions and change is a persistent worry."

So what does it take for an organization to succeed at mastering high-stakes change?

It comes down to one four-letter word: "C-A-R-E." If people don't care, they don't commit fully to new plans, collaborations, and goals at the individual or team levels. They comply with the corporate change program only superficially instead, going through the motions while hoping to maintain the status quo as much as possible.

So how do you get them to care?

In a marketplace that lives and dies by the numbers, it's easy to forget that people buy in with their hearts, not their heads. Getting that heart-driven buy-in brings up a topic many leaders and managers are uncomfortable discussing: Emotions. Yet study after study tells us decisions which appear to be supported by reams of quantitative analysis are really made by the heart, much more so than we want to believe.

Herein lies the problem: Leaders realize that emotions are important in motivating people, but they're not quite sure why -- or what to do about it. If people don't buy in with heart, as well as head, change is minimal at best, illusory at worst. This is one reason only 30 percent of CEOs rate their large-scale change efforts as highly effective, a statistic that has not shifted in more than a decade of research.

Emotions move people to act, while data supports (or often rationalizes) the decision. Napoleon Bonaparte said, "A leader is a dealer in hope." How do you lead people to see the opportunities in the new environment, and not focus on the uncertainties, and on what they are leaving behind? Here are four keys to mastering high-stakes change through emotional appeal.

Emotional Trigger #1: Jolt the brain
People become more change-ready when keeping things as they are presents more risk than venturing into the unknown. If change is imperative for the company to survive and thrive, often it is the leaders who understand just what is at stake. Negative information is usually soft-peddled to those outside of the C-suite "to keep morale up." If people do not understand the situation, the solution will not appear urgent.

Sharing startling or dramatic information, such as statistics, unfiltered negative news, or high-stakes projections can reduce resistance to change because people understand the urgent need to do something different. This primes the motivational pump to let go of what is known and comfortable, especially if it is clear that the real choice is between change and ceasing to exist. Danger sets off a "fight or flight" response in the brain, which, in turn, supports action. When used legitimately, disclosure of the true severity of the situation requiring change can help people realize that staying the course is riskier than trying a new path.

Emotional Trigger #2: Get people to care
We're back to the "care" word again. Many leaders mistakenly believe that because they care about a project or a new initiative, everyone else does, too. The problem is, people need a reason to care, and that reason inevitably involves self interest. So ask yourself: For the rank-and-file employee, what's in it for them? If the answer is, "nothing," -- in is going to be superficial. If employees stand to lose things they value (i.e., compensation, benefits, pensions) for no foreseeable gain, buy-in is going to be impossible.

People are not likely to care about your new strategy or approach until they see that you care about them. What kind of trust have you created between management and employees? Do employees have reason to believe they will benefit in the long-term from the change, or will all the benefits accrue to the stockholders and senior management? When the near-term adjustments are painful, both emotionally and financially, employees will not see a reason to support the change, and are likely to resist. Wise leaders and managers share in the pain, and find a way to make sure workers share in the benefit.

Emotional Trigger #3: Engage through dialogue

People tend to support what they help to create. When senior management engages employees to collaborate it helps form true partnerships, and emotional engagement occurs. That transforms employees into stakeholders, people invested in the course beyond their paycheck and benefits. By regaining a sense of control as part of the process, employees find a strong emotional and psychological connection to the new program or strategy. Participation creates ownership, and owners care passionately about outcomes.

Emotional Trigger #4: Reward the right things

Reward supportive participation publicly to strengthen commitment and reinforce shared passion. Rewarding people who embrace the new system creates mutual trust and demonstrates the relationship between actions and outcomes. Transition out people who are complainers, or who are passively compliant but not actively committed.

Change is inevitable, but buy-in is not. With industry consolidation and takeovers raising the stakes for top management, leaders must appeal to their employees' hearts as well as their heads if they want to achieve sustainable growth and bottom-line results.

Susan Battley, PsyD, PhD, is CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, specializing in leader and boardroom effectiveness, and author of Coached to Lead. Visit