Having Difficult Conversations in Construction Management

Nov 6, 2020 | Construction

I’m going to shock you here: sometimes in construction, things don’t work out. 

Sometimes things not working out means that a project has hit a snag. Other times, it means that a particular contractor isn’t performing up to snuff. Other times still, it means that someone from your own team isn’t working out for one reason or another. 

When this happens, a difficult conversation must be had. Difficult conversations are exactly that: difficult. But, as a leader, having difficult conversations is inevitable. 

Discipline is a challenge and it cannot be applied uniformly. The challenge for leaders is to always be fair, mindful, and respectful of the individual. But you certainly have to take into account the factors surrounding what led to the situation.

In my experience, the most powerful tool with which a good leader can approach a difficult conversation, whether it be with a single employee or a whole team, is empathy. Ultimately, the objective of any difficult conversation is to reach a mutual understanding. It is impossible to do so without empathizing with the person or group you are speaking to. 

I find that when employing empathy, I must first look inward and assess my own responsibility.

Were my expectations or standards clearly communicated to the individual or group? 

I have often said that one crucial aspect of any strong leader is the ability to not just communicate but to over-communicate. A leader has vision, and in order to be effective, they must make sure that everyone they expect to follow them sees that vision clearly, and is motivated to do their part to realize it. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to breakdowns that will precipitate these sorts of difficult conversations. And when it does, the first finger must be pointed at you, the leader. 

If you have communicated your vision well and there are still performance or discipline issues with workers, you must still use empathy when addressing them. 

As a good leader, you must know your team well. This means knowing what motivates them, what their strengths and weaknesses are, what they need to be successful, etc. 

Often, you have to tailor your style of mentorship or support to fit the needs of the individual. It is important that everyone is treated fairly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean treating everyone the same. Utilizing different styles for different individuals as you interpret what the needs of the situation are is incumbent on you as the leader. 

Each individual is different. They train differently, they understand differently, they have a different frame by which they understand their surroundings, etc. 

Recognizing the degree of diversity within your team and having a solid understanding of different techniques to use, or different ways to support your members becomes crucial. You can use this information to put yourself in the shoes of that individual and develop a path forward in a supportive and mentoring way, in order to have a positive long-term outcome.

Of course, no resolution can be had unless all parties involved are clear about the facts surrounding a given issue. Very often, this is the most difficult part of having a difficult conversation. 

Often, the party or parties that own culpability in a situation don’t want to acknowledge it. Managers don’t want to admit that they have failed to communicate their vision. Workers don’t want to admit they might not have the experience or skill set necessary to complete a particular task. They look for excuses when the reality is, there are none. 

When these issues arise, dealing with them already puts your schedule in jeopardy. Hand-wringing and finger-pointing only exacerbate the time and, ultimately, opportunity cost, that is at stake.

If everybody can be clear and transparent with one another about the actual facts surrounding a given situation, a solution can typically be found rather quickly and easily. Once we understand what the problem is, then we can come up with a creative solution to advance the situation, and get the project back on track to be delivered on time, on budget, or better. 


About the author

Lee Crewson

Lee Crewson

Founder & President

Lee has made commercial construction management his life’s work, focusing on building places where people live like multi-family, hospitality, student housing, and senior living for successful developers. He’s also committed to the values of this country and has over twenty five years of service in both the active and reserve forces as a Commissioned Officer in the US military. Lee embraces the power of a committed team that collaborates early and often and is happy to guide any developer who shares the same philosophy for success.