Workplace Environment


The relative success of a building construction project is often determined by the ability of the design team, owner, and contractors to effectively communicate ideas and resolve conflicts. This is true for practically any other type of endeavor that we humans venture into as teams.  Architects, engineers, and construction professionals form a special part of the team that is critical to the success of the building project. Each of the participants in the process is typically driven by slightly different interests, and have their own particular set of overlapping goals. This is the classical challenge that most people who have worked in teams are familiar with. People with years of experience working in these environments will likely have many stories of success, and perhaps also of failure in their endeavors that involve being part of a team. Part of what makes these projects difficult to execute, is a problem that everyone is faced with in their day-to-day lives: personality differences—we each see the same world in different ways. Different types of people (i.e. personalities) are needed for the many tasks associated with the successful design and construction of a building structure and one of the beauties of humanity is that we rely on different types of people to successfully achieve monumental tasks that any single person would be incapable of doing on their own.  Synergy is created by the complementary effects of different people.  This article will provide a brief overview of personality types with a focus on key players in the construction industry, and some tips for working with others to achieve success.

Although concrete definitions of the term vary, this definition captures the idea well: “Personality is the unique organization of thoughts, feelings, and behavior combined distinctly in each person that defines and determines the person’s pattern of interaction with the environment” [1]. Each person has a unique personality that is composed of traits that may be common with others. You may have heard of the Myers-Briggs personality classification technique. It is a technique, based on Carl Jung’s work, that involves identifying traits that are shared among different groups of personality types and classifying the personality types accordingly. The categories that have been developed cover a large array of human personalities, and can be eerily on-target when it comes to how we behave. There is no best personality type to complete any task at hand, and the complex nature of a complete construction process requires the involvement of many personality types for success. Each type of person will respond differently to different forms of communication, decision making, and motivation. Understanding the personality of the members in your team can help to improve communication and productivity, foster creativity, and generally help the outcome of a project and the experience for the people involved.

Engineers have had many stereotypes throughout the years, most of which you will be familiar with: quiet, busy, intellectual, reclusive… Many engineers’ personality is a type known in Myers-Briggs terminology as INTP. This stands for Introversion Intuitive Thinking and Perceiving. This personality type is often referred to as ‘The Logician’ and some famous people who were INTPs include Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln.  INTP people are usually associated with being logical, inventive, intellectual, analytical, and complex thinkers [2]. Some less obvious traits are that they are usually laid-back, flexible, and handle critique well. This personality type is akin to working alone and developing solutions autonomously. Although many engineers are close to the INTP type, the overall population is composed of less than 3% INTPs. This type of personality is usually not socially adept, hence the Introversion trait. They may have a hard time making their presence known, and demonstrating the importance of their needs and decisions when working as part of a team.

Architects share many traits with engineers; they most commonly share the Intuitive, and Thinking traits. This alludes to the intimate, but oftentimes complex, relationships that structural engineers and architects commonly share. In the synopsis of a survey of many high performance architects, it was found that most managers of successful architecture firms, had a personality type of ENTJ (Extroverted Intuitive Thinking, and Judging) [3]. This personality type is often referred to as ‘The Commander’ and some famous people who were ENTJs include Bill Gates and Margaret Thatcher.  Although there are some common traits with INTPs, ENTJs will often demonstrate leadership qualities that drive teams to success through promoting hard work and instilling key directives. They tend to be outspoken about their needs and use their candor as a way to get the job done. The Judging trait plays a large role in how an ENTJ will make decisions and stick to plans. Part of this quality is the need to make plans early and stick with them to accomplish goals. Sometimes the decisions and plans made early on can be very rigid and may make ENTJs seem less flexible; however their Intuitive and Thinking traits provide that most are good at taking criticism.

Construction managers are critical to the successful implementation of any construction job. The architects and engineers would be nothing more than artists and mathematicians if the outcome of their work did not materialize into the built environment. The construction team will ultimately be the ones who bring the design from an idea to an actuality. People who find themselves in this role often share some common traits that undoubtedly contribute to their success. ESTJ is the personality type that is often associated with successful construction managers. The acronym stands for Extraversion Sensing Thinking and Judging. This personality type is often referred to as ‘The Executive’ and some famous people who were ESTJs include George W. Bush and Lyndon B. Johnson.  These type of people are known for their organized, even methodical, approach to life and to work. They have a strong work ethic that is both grounded and practical. ESTJs are often referred to as born-leaders because they have an uncanny knack for directing people to achieve success. People who work with ESTJ’s may note that they have great follow through and that they always want to be right. Their common-sense approach to conflicts is crucial to their ability to successfully lead projects that are complex.

In conclusion, people exhibit a wide array of personality traits that make them unique. It is these traits that create patterns of interaction with their environment including other people. A successful design team is one that works together to deliver the end product according to the requirements and specifications of the owner, as well as the legal requirements of their jurisdiction. Architects, Engineers, and Contractors—each often tends toward particular personality types which can add complexity to an already difficult task. Communication between different types of people often requires a holistic approach that takes advantage of each individual’s strengths, while deferring weakness to others—thus allowing the synergy to happen. It is all-too common for an adversarial relationship to develop amongst the design team wherein each individual acts only on behalf of their own best interest. We have made a short list of ways that team members can mitigate conflict, increase productivity, and encourage that each party brings their best traits to the forefront of the team environment. These lists are particularly useful to the project manager, but all team members can benefit from taking a more proactive approach to teamwork.

  1. Recognize and verbally acknowledge each team member’s needs, concerns, and issues. Write a list of each party’s needs, compare them to your own, identify differences and similarities. It can be useful to map out all of the needs of each party and identify the issues which may benefit from your own personality traits and skills. You might be surprised to find that solutions outside of your field that may seem like common sense are overlooked; speak up and you may be able to contribute doubly to a project by having a great idea about an issue that another team member is experiencing.
  2. Remember that all people are unique individuals, but certain personalities tend toward understanding information differently. Try to identify the types of people you are working with on a project and tailor your information to suit their particular way of learning. You may learn that the engineer responds best to graphical information, while the contractor responds well to lists. If this is the case, you may consider putting together updates in a way that caters to both visual and list-based learners. This will improve comprehension, and strengthen the communication of your message to team members.
  3. Don’t let differences with your team members bring you down. Some tasks are performed very well by all like-minded individuals, but the majority of projects require the skills of many types of people. It is generally best to not only identify the differences amongst others, but to harness each individual’s strengths to counterbalance any potential weakness. If one of your team members has a knack for thinking outside the box, but tends to be behind on deadlines, adopt a strategy to involve this person early and hold them accountable for intermediate progress updates. Doing this will allow your team to benefit from good ideas during the conceptual planning phase, and have a good handle on the status of the project as the timeline progresses.
  4. Find common ground. The initial team formation experience can be radically different for each type of personality. While engineers may be most interested in the complex issues to overcome, the architect may be more concerned with achieving the owner’s dream, and the contractor with scheduling and cost. In an early project planning stage, each member of the design team may be using project resources in their own preferred way, but by the end of the project you might find that many of the early efforts were wasted because of lack of common ground leading to changes, etc. To combat this, it is often advisable to look back at the personality types of the typical design team and focus on the similarities. Use the common ground as a platform to initiate a focused team effort that capitalizes on the strengths of its players, and shores-up the weaknesses.

A great place to start is by reflecting on your own personality type and doing some research about how different people communicate best. You can take a quick test to determine your type and learn more about the other major types here at https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test. Agree or disagree with your tested personality type? Post a comment or send me an email with your type and your conclusions.

By Paul Waite, MS, EI

[1] P. Dr. Alan Atalah PhD, “The Personality Traits of Construction Management Professionals,” Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio.
[2] Personality Max, “INTP Personality Type- The Engineer”.
[3] A. K. Hurley, “A Difficult Character,” Architect – The Journal of the AMerican Institute of Architects.

 

Comments on an interesting article, “Sounds of Silence”, in Stern Business by Morrison and Milliken.

The article is about the ubiquitous situation in which employees know about certain issues and problems that their organization faces but do not dare to speak the truth to their superiors. The article likens this to a CEO who has no clothes and the employees, instead of mentioning it to the CEO, instead compliment his fine dress. The CEO takes pleasure in receiving the complimentary comments about how he dresses well and only the foolish or naïve dare speak truthfully (in public anyway) about the situation. And those who do are viewed as troublemakers by the CEO and often dismissed.

From the mindset of the employee, they often think that they will suffer negative consequences (which is often true) if they speak truth to power and that speaking up would not make a difference anyway (which is often also true). From management’s perspective, we need to figure out how to encourage employees to speak up and express opinions lest we lose out on one of our best opportunities for making our organizations better. Employees are often on the front lines of a business and experience first-hand how things work and see the problems that exist and can often make very good suggestions about how to improve things. Even just pointing out that problems exist is a good thing. The danger with not having “speaker-uppers” in an organization (and let’s face it: the environment created by management certainly goes a long way to encourage or discourage this behavior) is that organizational learning and change is hampered. Organization errors tend to persist and possibly magnify.

The fundamental attribution error can be a contributing source of organizational silence conditions and should be guarded against. For example, when employees do speak up about problems, take a hard look at what they say and don’t automatically dismiss it as self-serving for the employee or that they have a personality or something. We do tend to make the fundamental attribution error when explaining the behavior of others and being aware of it can help organizational behavior in many ways including helping to guard against creating a culture of organizational silence.

To do list:

  • Work hard to counteract the natural human tendency to avoid negative feedback
  • Work hard to build an open and trusting organizational climate
  • Send messages with actions not just words

Comments on an article subtitled Job Dissatisfaction and High Turnover at the Lima Tire Plant, from Harvard Business Publishing, June 12, 2008, by Skinner and Beckham.

This case study was of a tire manufacturing plant in Lima, Ohio and the study focused on the negative working conditions that existed for the line foremen and the consequent high turnover problem.

Some of the Problems and Symptoms:

  • Foremen were pulled in conflicting directions by hourly staff, management and union. They did not get respect from any of the three constituencies.
  • Foremen had too many responsibilities yet not enough authority to effectively deal with them. They needed to do lots of juggling with daily personnel, resource and administrative issues. They felt unsupported by upper management and felt that felt their locus of control was external (which in large part it was). They had little disciplinary power and had to go through the union and often had no explanation of the union’s actions with regard to deciding to discipline or not.
  • Lack of training. Foremen were thrust into a sink or swim situation with little guidance and little preparation. Most did not have college degrees and without training or educational background many probably lacked the skills necessary to navigate the job. The system all but set them up for failure.
  • Emotions and attitudes are contagious. The symptom, dissatisfaction, of the foremen spread to other employees exacerbating and exponentially growing problems that manifested.
  • Long shifts (12 hours) contributed to absenteeism. This move saved immediate money for the company but cost more in the long term and contributed to making the foreman’s job harder in having to constantly scramble for substitute workers.

Suggestions:

  • Mentoring Program. The foremen definitely need more support, guidance and tools to work with. Also, the company indicated they were having budget problems that precluded incorporating a formal training program. First, off the company seemed to have a problem and a pattern of looking only at upfront costs and not being able to see the big picture. A formal training program, while an upfront expense, would probably more than pay for itself once up and running and gained a little maturity. As a second-best-option, a mentoring program could achieve some of the same results while being lower up-front cost.
  • Employee Feedback Program. Communication seems to be a big problem for this company. More formal employee feedback programs that gives the employees a voice and encourages them to speak up and be involved may help them to take ownership of their jobs and also uncover problems that may have remained hidden with no opportunity to fix them.

This article discusses a Case Study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business that is subtitled: Success in A Declining Industry.

The founder, George Zimmer, opened his first store back in 1973, at a time when competitors were closing their doors. From opening to the time of the article (1997) the Men’s’ Wearhouse enjoyed 30% growth. Between 1991 and 1996 they grew from 113 stores to 345 and from $133.4 to $483.5 in net sales. This Case is a study of some of the things they did right.

Some of the things that I think they did right:

  • Humanism. George Zimmer said: “I’ll tell you the last thing most MBA’s probably think of as value is the untapped human potential…the culture says, ‘It’s got to be quantifiable’.” They understood that their people were not disconnected from the rest of their lives when they were at work and had holistic views of their people. In terms of sales and their salespeople they understood that customers could unconsciously tell the difference between a “fake” salesperson and a salesperson that is being part of a genuine human interaction. They saw their salespeople as “consultants” who could expand off someone’s initial request but not sell them something they didn’t want or need for their own benefit. They used the term “selling with soul” and “becoming an artist as a salesperson” as well as “make an emotional connection” (a la “Linchpin” per Seth Godin which actually came more recently). They understood that sales involved understanding and serving people.
  • Servant Leadership. In contrast to the ubiquitous ‘shareholders first’ mentality, they said that employees came first and shareholders last (my cynical side says ‘is this real or just lip service?’). Management treated the people they managed and worked with as their customers as well, which is a great policy. Zimmer set an example of his servant mentality by making a comparatively smaller salary than his industry counterparts. They also seemed to have a mentality of managers doing all jobs when needed, similar to Southwest Airlines; if a regional manager was visiting a store and saw a customer that needed help they would jump in and help.
  • Open Door Complaint Policy. They encouraged employees to point out problems. Encouraging complaints and allowing problems to surface goes a long way toward improving the business’s structural systems.
  • Abundant Training. Zimmer characterized training as the same thing as mentoring, just that it reached more people. He also tried to give his employees a sense of being connected to something with a higher purpose. However, all training was ‘in-house’; see “wrong” section below for the other side of the training subject.
  • Tailored Performance Evaluations. While I’m generally not a fan of the Performance Eval, Men’s Wearhouse did do one thing that is worth applauding, if even for the effort: they, at least somewhat, tailored their Evals to the specific job, rather than using a “one size fits all”. This was a step in the right direction. On the down side their Evals did not have any team incentives which probably would have helped preclude inter-company competition and stealing of customers which they seemed to have some problem with.

Some of the things that I think they did wrong:

  • Nepotism. Most of the management team and board of directors were George Zimmer’s relatives and boyhood friends and nepotism was not discouraged. While it can be personally nice to work with friends and family it can substantially increase the risk of such negatives as groupthink and lack of fresh ideas.
  • No Outside Training and Promotion Only From Within. Men’s Wearhouse said that their “managers did not have the time” to do outside training. In-house training and promotion from within are nice in moderation but too much could create a stagnant situation of sparse levels of new energy and ideas.

From the October 20, 2008 Issue an article by Samuel A. Culbert, PhD, Professor of management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

In this article, Dr. Culbert lays out a compelling and thought-provoking case for abolishment of the traditional performance review and replacement with a performance preview. He makes 6 good points in his argument against the traditional performance review.

  1. The mind sets held by the two participants (boss and employee) in a performance review work at cross-purposes. The boss wants to discuss performance and improvements while the employee is focused in issues such as compensation.
  2. Claiming an evaluation can be objective is preposterous. Where you stand determines what you see.
  3. Pleasing the boss so often becomes more important than doing a good job.
  4. Personal development should be an important part of a person’s job. However, people don’t want to pay a high price for acknowledging their need for improvement—which is exactly what they would do if they arm the boss with the kind of personal information he or she would need to help them develop.
  5. The boss in the performance review thinks of himself or herself as the evaluator, and doesn’t engage in teamwork with the subordinate. It isn’t “How are we going to work together as a team?” It’s, “How are you performing for me?”
  6. It’s immoral to maintain the façade that annual pay and performance reviews lead to corporate improvement, when it’s clear they lead to more bogus activities than valid ones. The more positive an atmosphere we can create at work, the more positive an impact it has at home. In short, what goes around comes around.

In my experience, as both an employee and a boss, his points struck a chord with me and I recognized, from personal experience, the arguments he was making. The old style of regularly scheduled performance reviews does tend to steer the employee to aim his/her efforts at pleasing the boss rather than actually aiming to do a good job and perform well. The work environment becomes a game of perception management and drains precious energy away from the worthwhile and dividend-paying tasks and, ultimately, morale and quality suffer. There has to be a better way, a genuinely new and improved way of promoting straight talk relationships between bosses and employees and keeping precious energy focused in the high payoff places. Dr. Culbert may be on to something when he says: “It’s the boss’s responsibility to find a way to work well with an imperfect individual, not to convince the individual there are critical flaws that need immediate correcting, which is all but guaranteed to lead to unproductive game playing and politically inspired back stabbing. Keep in mind, of course, that improvement is each individual’s own responsibility. You can only make yourself better.” Doing away with the traditional performance review may start a positive trend of fostering better team relationships and keeping self-improvement in the realm of the individual.

The storyline for this case study goes that the SAS Institute was facing increasing competition, etc. and the question was: “Could and should the Institute maintain its unique approach to pay and other practices?” Had their success been a product of their approach or achieved in spite of their approach?

Attraction and retention of talent was certainly a key to SAS’s continued success. Some of the perks that their employees enjoyed included healthy retirement, bonus plans and a lot of autonomy, freedom and control over their day-to-day schedules. SAS was of the philosophy that if they made their employees happy, great revenue and customer service would follow. They employed a trickle-down philosophy—”if you treat your people well, things will take care of themselves.” They believed that motivation was largely intrinsic. One interesting example, in the case study, was of a SAS employee who quit after 2 weeks because when she arrived at 9 in the morning, she wanted someone to tell her what her job responsibilities were for that day. SAS is not set up that way; they assume that their employees have talent, creativity and initiative. Their approach is to “give people the tools they need to do their job then get out of the way.” They believe that management “…should be a relationship instead of an infrastructure.”

SAS’s philosophy of assuming that their employees are intrinsically motivated works well (and should continue to work well) for them because of their particular type of employee (i.e. professional, educated, self-starter, etc.) but would probably not work well with, for example, many non-professional, hourly-type employees.

Lesson:

  • There are different (and distinct) levels of professionalism among different types of employees (i.e. professional, salaried versus non-professional, hourly). Each has different expectations of their work environment, need different levels of supervision and guidance and are motivated differently (intrinsically versus extrinsically). It is important to keep the two clear in management’s head, so to speak, to foster employee performance.

The story of Nordstrom is one of a classic conflict between two competing business philosophies:

1) That one needs to do whatever is necessary to be effective and make the sale because business depends on it and

2) That employees should be able to work their scheduled hours, leave the job behind when they punch out and let their employer worry about the rest.

Business philosophy number 1 was Nordstrom’s operating philosophy and they applied it to their salespeople; treating them similar to independent contractors. This type of situation is often encountered (and encouraged) with white collar, salaried employees. Business philosophy number 2 is often encountered in situations involving blue collar, hourly employees. Our society (and the precedence of the law) seems to be comfortable with these two philosophies being applied separately to each of the aforementioned groups, but when the line gets blurred it becomes more contentious, as Nordstrom soon found out.

Nordstrom was historically well-respected for posting impressive financial numbers and having quality employees that “went the extra mile” to provide exceptional customer service. Their salespeople were hourly employees who could increase their earnings by increasing their “sales per hour”—a number that was calculated for each employee and made public. This public compensation program, combined with other systemic issues such as a decentralized management system and a lack of clear guidance for middle managers eventually manifested as various problems in employees attitudes and behaviors. An unhealthy competition among salespeople, including stealing of others sales, contributed to a drop in morale. The decentralized management and lack of clear guidance for middle managers created inconsistencies in the system and abuses such as managers creating, in the salespeople, a sense that their job was always in jeopardy and that they needed to work “off the clock” to get their numbers up. The Nordstrom system seemed to have attempted to give equal emphasis to the oft-conflicting goals of service, profitability and middle-management autonomy which manifested in these various deleterious attitudes and behaviors in the employees.

Ultimately, Nordstrom problems affected their bottom line: they suffered public perception problems and were sued and had to reimburse sales people for back pay for hours worked “off the clock”—to the tune of millions of dollars.

Lessons:

  1. Sometimes a decentralized system of management, especially when combined with unclear direction from upper managers to middle managers, is not a good thing.
  2. There are different (and distinct) levels of professionalism among different types of employees (i.e. professional, salaried versus non-professional, hourly). Each has different expectations in the way they should be treated and a blurring of these well-established and distinct lines manifests in undesirable attitudes and behaviors of the employees, society and the legal system.

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