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What a Dutch-German army integration can teach us about employee engagement

Date:10 December 2020
Dr Susanne Täuber (left) / Frederik Wermser MSc (right)
Dr Susanne Täuber (left) / Frederik Wermser MSc (right)

In 2016, the Dutch and German army placed multiple units of the 43 Mechanised Brigade and the First Armored Division under each other’s command and started exchanging personnel between these units. In one unit, 350 German and 100 Dutch soldiers work together – a depth of integration previously unknow. For four years, a team of FEB researchers (Frederik Wermser, Susanne Täuber, Peter Essens, and Eric Mollemena) got the unique opportunity to study how soldiers, who work in these units, experienced the integration.

Frederik Wermser and Susanne Täuber share their findings on employee identification, complementary capabilities and change as an opportunity, and what other organizations that plan to integrate can learn from them.

Did you discover a surprising finding in the research?

Frederik: “What was most striking to us, was that most soldiers were positive about the integration; they primarily saw it as an opportunity. Likely because soldiers are used to collaborate internationally and recognized that today’s global security situation requires collaboration. This is a rather uncommon observation, most other studies in the literature document employee resistance to integrations. Thus, we had a unique research context at our hand in which we could learn more about positive employee reactions to integrations.”

Could you explain the most important finding of your research?

Frederik: “In our research we focused on what drives employee identification, in other words what makes soldiers feel part of the integration. High identification is important because it promotes collaboration between employees and leads to increased organizational performance. In addition, and particularly important for soldiers who rely on each other in life-threatening situations, identification promotes trust. In the studies we conducted, we identified two influential drivers of identification. First, soldiers reacted positively when the integration changed the character of their military unit. If you think about it, it’s actually quite logical: something that is seen as an opportunity is taking place, so you want the group of people you work with to be part of this change. Yet, this finding contradicts the common assumption that employees always want things to stay as they used to be.

The second driver takes that idea a step further. We found that soldiers not only wanted the integration to positively change their unit, but they also wanted to actively contribute to the integration and the change it brings about. Specifically, many soldiers perceived that Dutch and German soldiers had complementary capabilities. This means that the Dutch were perceived to know how to do certain things better than the Germans and the other way around. When soldiers could put the complementary capabilities of their nation to use for the success of the integration, this reaffirmed their idea that they were a valued part of the integration. As a result, they identified more strongly with the integrated organization.”

What are the wider implications of this discovery?

Susanne: “First, this research shows that for those in charge of integration projects such as mergers, joint ventures, and strategic alliances, it might be constructive to have an opportunity mindset and share this with employees. Thus, the focus should be on what can be gained: How will the organization evolve through the integration? Which individual career and learning opportunities does the changing environment offer? How will employees be involved and in which ways can they contribute to success? This sets a completely different tone for the integration than what we were used to in the field of mergers and acquisitions, which focuses on employees’ experiences of threat, uncertainty, and resistance, rather than on employees’ ownership of and contribution to positive organizational change.

So, in a nutshell, our research adds to the typical conceptualization of organizational change as threat a perception of change as opportunity. In doing so, we are joining a small but growing number of pioneering researchers who are exploring the possibilities of organizational change as opportunities. In our final report, we provide practical guidance for positive employee engagement in future integrations. 

Second, for those particularly interested in cross-border collaborations between Germany and the Netherlands, our research can give valuable insights about how employees of the two countries perceive each other and how the two national cultures can be complementary. Just last month, Frederik was part of a symposium discussing Dutch-German cross-border collaboration with a panel of experts and practitioners.”

What led you to research this topic?

Susanne: “My interest in mergers and how they affect social identity was probably triggered by experiencing the reunification of East and West Germany. This was a very joyful event and it held the promise of positive change. However, for many involved, reality did not live up to this promise of opportunity, and 30 years later, we still see East Germans lagging behind in opportunities, representation in higher positions, income, and wealth.

So, the ambiguity of organizational and social change has been quite clear to me. But after spending many years looking at the downsides of organizational change, which is the primary focus of the field, I really enjoyed being involved in this project. It was also a unique collaboration for us, because normally organizations that are in change processes do not want to have “outsiders” sniffing around. But here, the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Army, Lieutenant General Martin Wijnen, actually invited us to get onboard and do the research.

It shows just how rewarding it can be for organizations to actively engage with difficulties encountered in the change process. By acknowledging and anticipating hiccups and challenges, and not being afraid of that, they become a truly learning organization that continuously improves. The higher education sector is changing tremendously, too – we might learn a thing or two from how the army deals with change.”

What are you looking forward to investigating next?

Frederik: “We still have a lot more data from this research project that waits to be analyzed. I am particularly excited about a mixed-method study we are currently working on. For this study we combine soldiers’ written answers to open questions with numeric data they provide. This way we will learn even more about their experiences and identities in the integration, thereby contributing to theory development and future research.”

For more information, please contact:

Dr Susanne Täuber: s.tauber@rug.nl

Frederik Wermser: f.l.wermser@rug.nl

You can download the full report here.