Command and control: construction’s outdated leadership style

I rose through the ranks in construction by being hard on everyone, including myself.

The behaviours I saw in my seniors, and learned to emulate myself, were aggression, assertiveness and dominance. I barked orders, tore strips off people and never backed down in a disagreement.

Once I saw "Dave Stitt is a bastard!" scrawled on the Portaloo wall, and it made me proud. Today, of course, I’d be mortified. That’s right, I’ve gone "soft".

The change happened in the mid-1990s when I got involved in culture-change programmes at the companies I worked for, which culminated in me leading an award-winning, company-wide change programme at Wates.

Gradually, I saw that there was a better way to be that got better results and reflected the real me.

Since then, I’ve been spreading the message among executive boards and project leadership teams I coach, and they get it, too.

The industry’s default command-and-control management style, which barks orders, monitors compliance, and threatens blame and sanction for non-compliance, doesn’t work.

It creates stress, stifles initiative and erodes engagement, which is very bad news for an industry that has a productivity problem and trouble attracting good talent.

We’re a people industry, really

It creates stress, stifles initiative and erodes engagement, which is very bad news for an industry that has a productivity problem and trouble attracting good talent– Dave Stitt

We tend to think of construction as a technical industry but it’s actually a people one, and I say that as a chartered civil engineer.

To execute a project, people from disparate organisations, often with competing agendas, come together to achieve a big result under pressure.

That’s a major challenge, and technical competencies are the starting point, but it takes people skills to knit them together.

Despite this, people skills barely feature in established routes to professional qualifications, so young leaders just soak up whatever ambient culture is there in the companies they work for, and the problem is perpetuated.

It’s from this gap, where those skills should be, that many of construction’s problems arise.

From command-and-control to coaching

There is a different way: a coaching style of management.

When they adopt basic coaching techniques, managers stop seeing their people as risks to manage and problems to fix, and they start seeing them as tremendous stores of talent and initiative to tap.

A coach knows people come to work to do a great job, that they want to do it, and they can do it.

But, as we all do, people face all sorts of barriers to achieving the results they want.

So a coach works with people to raise their awareness of the barriers they face, and encourages them to work out for themselves how they’re going to overcome those barriers.

This fosters engagement, excitement and initiative as people take control of their performance and grow in confidence and skill.

Construction’s problem is happiness, not image

Employee engagement in construction today is low.

We surveyed hundreds of construction professionals under the age of 40 and found that most of them – some 57% – would not recommend working in the industry to their peers.

They told us they want a more positive work environment, and to be supported by their managers to develop. That’s exactly what coaching does.

Since I can remember, we’ve wrung our hands over how to improve the image of construction to attract more talent. But what if we’ve got it the wrong way round?

Why are we worried about our image when its the nature of our management culture that is turning talent off?

And what if a better, more productive management culture made people happier? We’d then have many thousands of people saying what a great industry it is!

Young people listen to each other, not industry talking heads.

How we’re going to change things

After months of research and planning, we’re launching a new management course for young construction professionals delivered via the CIOB Academy, called ‘Coach for Results’.

It’s a 10-week course you fit around your schedule that teaches the basic coaching techniques to people in a leadership role, or heading for one, so they can enhance their management style for better results.

We’re sure it will benefit the industry, its productivity and its people.

In fact, we think it’ll change it from the ground up.

  • Dave Stitt is an executive coach at DSA Building Performance, specialising in construction. Learn more about Coach for Results here. 

Image: (©dtfoxfoto/Dreamstime)

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