The culture of telling people what to do and how to do it is stifling the construction industry. Instead, project managers should become coaches
In this month’s edition of the 21CC Podcast, I argue for a coaching style of management throughout the construction industry.
As an enthusiastic industry practitioner for more than 47 years and a keen observer of culture, I have concluded that the default management style is command and control.
Checking for compliance has long since been the key activity for people in the management ranks.
But people don’t like being told what to do and how to do it. They want to think for themselves and they creatively rebel against having to comply. Then they leave. And they are leaving… remember the skills shortage?
I’m doing something about it – more on that later.
First, here are some management scenarios, which are based on my experience in the construction industry.
Each scenario is set out with the traditional approach to management first, followed by how it would look using a coaching style of management.
People don’t like being told what to do and how to do it. They want to think for themselves and they creatively rebel against having to comply
Client procuring a project
Client says: “If you want this job, you’d better sign this contract, read it carefully ’cos it’s not standard.”
Client thinks: “I’ve been burnt several times by contractors and don’t trust them. My QS has nailed down the contract and I’m ready for the contractor’s scams – bring it on.”
Client asks: “How can we procure you, so we work together to deliver this project and our common objectives?”
Client thinks: “I need them and want to hear their thoughts on the best way of reaching a mutually beneficial binding agreement that will underpin a successful and lasting business relationship.”
Client managing change
Client says: “I want you to manage all our designers, so they complete the design before we go to contract.”
Client thinks: “I want the design complete so there are no variations and if there are, then they can pay for them out of their professional indemnity, or you can out of yours.”
Client asks: “How can we integrate design and construction and manage change effectively?”
Client thinks: “Change is going to happen. If I’m to get the best and most up-to-date facility, I want to explore how we can manage change together.”
Contractor’s agent and the subcontractor
Contractor’s agent says: “You are six weeks behind programme; it’s your fault. I want three more gangs of workers and the necessary plant on site within seven days or you will never work for us again.”
Contractor’s agent thinks: “They haven’t got a clue how much this is hurting me; I’m going to tell them straight and give them an ultimatum.”
Contractor’s agent asks: “We are behind programme; can we explore what’s holding you back and how we can get back on track?”
Contractor’s agent thinks: “We are both hurting here. I want to understand their pain, whether I am contributing towards it and what I need to do differently.
“Trusting me is the best way for them being honest with me and with themselves. Honesty is what is needed here to work out what we are going to do and also so I can manage expectations upwards.”
Managing director meeting first-day new recruit
Managing director says: “Ah Dave Stitt, senior project manager, we’ll soon see what you’re made of!”
Managing director thinks: “I’m really busy, up to my neck, I haven’t got time for this right now.
“And Chris, why are you barging in here with your latest new recruit? He doesn’t look old enough to be called ‘senior’ at anything – have you called him that just to recruit him and how much are you paying him? And how long will he last? More than the usual six months, I wonder? I doubt it.”
Managing director asks: “Hey Dave, nice to meet you. Can we schedule a time to have a chat? I’d like to get to know you, where you’ve come from, what you’re bringing and how Chris and I can enable you to succeed here.”
Managing director thinks: “I haven’t got time now, but I want to make time for him. He’s just started, and I want him to feel valued and it’s great that Chris is showing him round the office and introducing him to everyone.
“That’s how I want things to happen round here; people are important and first impressions count.”
Middle manager confronted by a stressed employee
Manager says: “Colin, you come in here, shouting the odds about all the things you have to do, expecting me to prioritise for you. Anyway, I think this is most important, get going on that and leave the rest with me and I’ll move a few people round to sort it.”
Manager thinks: “Colin can’t delegate. He’s a perfectionist and only trusts himself to get things done right. That’s not working for him, and he frequently gets overwhelmed and it ends up at my door; the monkey is off his back and on mine now.
“I know what’s going on here, but I haven’t got time to deal with everyone’s stress. I’ll sort it.”
Manager says: “Okay Colin, it’s good we talked this through. I appreciate you raising your concerns with me and that you acknowledge it’s your job to manage the delivery of all of this.
“What needs to change for you to succeed here? And what specific support do you need from me? Please have a think and come back to me later today; I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and moving this forward together.”
Manager thinks: “Colin can do this and I’m happy to enable him to work it out for himself and to be there with him along the way; it’s his job and he is taking the lead.”
You will quickly grow into this different approach, this coaching style of management, and they will grab it with both hands, because it’s what they are looking for – to think for themselves, to be empowered, to be engaged
Asking questions, listening and enabling
Let’s be clear: this is not coaching, rather it’s what I call a coaching ‘style’ of getting things done; a coaching style of management.
When you ask questions, listen and enable the other person to think and work things out for themselves, they lift up and take ownership of what you are paying them to accomplish. You have empowered them, they are engaged, and you’re the best!
If this feels alien to you, chances are it will also feel alien to them. You have been telling them what to do and how to do it and they have gotten used to that, used to not thinking for themselves, being lazy.
But you will quickly grow into this different approach, this coaching style of management, and they will grab it with both hands, because it’s what they are looking for – to think for themselves, to be empowered, to be engaged.
So, where to start? Catch yourself when you are about to tell someone what to do. Pause, breathe and ask them: “What do you think?”
Changing the industry from the ground up
Earlier, I said I was doing something about the industry’s command and control culture.
Well, this is it. I have created an online course called Coach for Results. It’s here on Udemy.
Done at scale, over time, this style of management will change the industry from the ground up and you will have been a big part of that change. And who knows where that will take you?
Let’s not continue with what’s described as traditional here. Think about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that.
There is a simple alternative. Let’s get started.
Dave Stitt FCIOB is a chartered civil engineer, and professional certified coach at DSA Building Performance.