Firing Up the Team

Thomas C Schleifer, Ph.D.

Successful construction professionals build a team in four successive steps: 1. Recruit 2. Train 3. Motivate 4. Retain. This week we’ll take a closer look at motivation. Many in our industry are tough, hands-on personality types with little interest in “attending to” the troops and consider anything beyond fair pay, ample work opportunities, and reasonably safe working conditions “coddling”. For the most part this style of no-nonsense leadership is military born, and many construction professionals adopt it when they go into the business. It has in the past seemed natural and adequate for getting the job done in a rough tough industry. However, it limits the ability to impact the labor force in any meaningful way.

Everyone’s a Temp

Our industry is unique in the way our workforce is organized, in that may of our tradesmen and women don’t necessarily identify themselves as “permanent” employees of the construction companies that currently employs them.

  • Many of them see themselves as independent workers who hire out temporarily to many different contractors.
  • On union projects the workers often see themselves more as employees of the union and look for care and concern from the union rather than from the company they are working for at the time.
  • This unusual employer/employee relationship leads to a feeling of detachment on the part of both the trades and the contractors.
  • Most contractors’ team building efforts are confined to the home office inner circle of salaried employees and field supervision.

This “arm’s length” relationship between contractors and the skilled trades limits the construction professional’s ability to communicate with the most crucial part of their “team” and limits the positive influence they might have on quality and productivity. If a contractor shows no interest in the welfare of the skilled trades, the skilled workers take little interest in the contractor’s success. They do what they must but eventually come to work laden with a minimal sense of satisfaction which leads to something along the lines of: “Let’s get this over with and head home.”

Show Interest

Studies of construction productivity demonstrate that taking an active interest in the welfare of construction workers can make a huge difference. The studies reveal that it isn’t even so much what a contractor does to show interest in workers that makes the difference, but simply the fact that they show interest at all. That’s right. Showing any interest, regardless of how trivial, results in measurable increases in productivity.

A Case History

A large contractor building a school in a poor neighborhood hired a consultant to evaluate the process and productivity of the masonry portion of the project. The consultant visited the job site as work got underway and interviewed the masons weekly thereafter. Here’s what happened:

  • At first the masons were surprised that anyone from the home office came on the job to talk to them.
  • The initial interviews revealed that the masons, who were laying block at the time, did not even know what they were building. (Utter indifference)
  • The consultant had the superintendent hang copies of building floor plans and elevations in the mason’s trailers so that the workers could see what they were building.
  • The fact that it was a much-needed elementary school had an effect on the interest level of most of the masons. They were proud that they were building a school for underprivileged kids. Productivity immediately ticked up.
  • Much to the foreman’s chagrin, the masons began reviewing and discussing the floor plans and elevations that were hanging in their trailers and began to offer suggestions about ways to get the job done more efficiently. Quality immediately improved and teamwork broke out among the workers.
  • Because of the perceived interest the consultant had the superintendent post the daily quantities of block laid by each team and a friendly competition ensued that gradually increased productivity even more. In less than a month productivity increased more than 30%.

Lesson Learned

Without the slightest intention on the part of the contractor or the consultant, their decision to study the work process was interpreted by the workers as interest in them, and they responded positively. The workers suddenly took an interest in what they were building. (Most foreman will tell you that the workers have no interest in the blueprints). Neither the contractor nor the consultant had done anything to make life better for the masons. (However, they did many more things in the future after they realized they could have a positive effect on their worker’s attitude that would result in a measurable improvement in both quality and productivity.) The lesson they learned here was – show interest and willing workers will improve their performance without concrete enticement. Add enticement and the sky is the limit.

A few realities: Management that claims that the trades have no interest in working smarter and better have never worked in the field. Motivation and productivity are exclusively the responsibility of management. The workforce thrives on leadership. 

Next week – we will discuss “Retaining Workers”.

For a deeper look into motivating employees, read more here: MOTIVATION

For a broader view into labor and labor issues, read more here: LABOR AND LABOR ISSUES

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Please circulate this widely.  It will benefit your constituents.  This research is continuous and includes new information weekly as it becomes available. Thank you.