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In construction, team models are complex: Each project is an assembly of hundreds of strangers coming together to build something incredible. Superintendents love this about their job—it is their responsibility and authority to lead complex, ever-changing project teams to the finish line. This is no simple task and includes:

  • orchestrating crew collaboration across skillsets;
  • elevating timely expertise above a crowd; and
  • motivating a jobsite to quickly shift focus.

Superintendents are the most well-positioned individuals on a team to lead a change in jobsite culture.

Psychological Safety and Effective Teams

Psychological safety is the great finding of Google’s groundbreaking study, the Aristotle Project, which published conclusions and training curriculums on how to create the most effective teams. This finding, and similar assertions by leadership gurus like Simon Sinek, have fascinated organizations in the realms of higher education, tech and organizational management; however, there is a compelling vision for the application of psychological safety to the construction industry. The rewards are best illustrated by field management’s following interests.

  • Effective construction teams are more innovative and more successfully attract the best skilled workers.
  • Effective construction teams are more productive.
  • Effective construction teams have superior physical safety records.

Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School describes psychological safety as, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,” in Science Administrative Quarterly. Consider the following two examples of the impact of fear in crews:

  • A worker lies about tardiness that is a side effect of their battle with a substance abuse disorder; or
  • A minority apprentice is subjected daily to subtle but disparaging comments, making them feel voiceless when asked to perform a task without proper safety training.

In both situations, field management is combatting the issue of presenteeism. Presenteeism is defined as the problem of employees who are not fully functioning in the workplace because of an illness, injury or other condition. These employees create a greater risk of physical injury for the rest of the crew. This could be due to their distraction from the task at hand, or because they are fearful to speak up. Either way, field management loses team buy-in, innovation and proactive safety practices, resulting in the likelihood that not all crew members will demonstrate the safest and most productive behaviors.

Psychological safety creates an environment where team members can talk openly or ask for help, allowing them to get the support they need to effectively perform. Here are some situational examples.

  1. A worker can talk openly about their challenges and get information on resources to address their substance abuse without shame.
  2. An apprentice can voice their experience to field management and get the necessary training, while field management addresses disparaging comments.
Challenging the Status Quo

Simply put, the pursuit of psychological safety requires the dynamics of jobsite teams to be challenged. As it turns out, this is not an insignificant task. As an industry, new ways to support people must be explored because they are struggling with serious problems that erode the effectiveness of teams, including the following.

  • Traditional “old school” jobsite dynamics can reinforce racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia—creating a hostile and unsafe work environment.
  • Presenteeism created by factors outside and on the jobsite jeopardizes crew safety, quality and productivity.

  • The construction industry’s rate of suicide ranks second by occupation at 45.3 per 100,000 people, per the CDC’s 2016 study. At nearly four times the national average, these statistics reveal the need to support psychological trauma that is reinforced by widespread stigma and the inherent characteristics of construction work (e.g. isolation/family separation, seasonal or shift work and chronic pain).
  • The industry’s skilled craft workforce has not recovered in the decade since the Great Recession. While the pandemic has dampened the consequences of the skilled labor shortage in Q2 2020, the USG Corporation and U.S. Chamber Commercial Construction Index’s data still reports challenges to meet schedule requirements, causing contractors to submit higher bids or turn down work opportunities.
Psychological Safety to Challenge Inappropriate and Biased Attitudes

When it comes to addressing bias, a superintendent has the authority to establish and uphold the expectations for behavior on the jobsite. Superintendents know they will get what they tolerate—inappropriate, biased attitudes just as much as the amount of material accumulating on the jobsite. With the power to stand behind their people, field management must commit to educating themselves on issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The “golden rule” must be elevated by teaching the “platinum rule:” treat others how they would want to be treated. The industry’s homogeneity is not a new revelation and the industry is unpracticed at cultivating, managing and assimilating diverse teams.

A superintendent can effectively guide their crews by example:

  • By immediately rebuking a crew member’s discriminatory joke, there is little likelihood it will be repeated; and
  • By inviting an apprentice to speak, the crew’s respect for the new crew member increases.

The universal industry characteristics of pride, loyalty and family are a natural way to emphasize common ground and rally crews around a common cause or task, which is important because commonalities supersede differences in the psychology of reducing bias.

Psychological Safety to Prevent Suicide

Superintendents scan the field for risk, which includes their people’s attitudes, readiness, health and performance. Education is the key to recognizing these risks. There are a growing number of construction-specific opportunities available to educate the workforce about mental health and the application of suicide prevention strategies. These field-actionable resources provide big impact through familiar methods.

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention provides the following on their website:

  • statistics and educational media;
  • toolbox talks, hardhat stickers and posters to promote awareness; and
  • mental health screening and intervention resources.

A superintendent can use these tools and template protocols to evaluate and leverage existing safety procedures for the prevention, documentation and postvention of psychological injuries. Consider displaying posters in the breakroom, adding toolbox talks to the monthly rotation and posting resources in porta-johns for confidential accessibility. Consider adding an addendum to the jobsite emergency action plan: Who should be called if there is an incident on site?

Psychological Safety to Overcome Labor Shortages

Psychological safety also plays a vital role in overcoming the labor shortage. Editorials addressing workforce development typically focus on a handful of approaches that seek to make the industry more attractive to younger generations. Highlighting technology, seeking underutilized candidate pipelines and applauding the benefits of a career that provides a living wage without student debt are compelling, but this advice rarely proposes challenging the stigmas and hierarchies of the industry that support a negative perception. Yet, hot words like “community”, “trust” and “purpose” are revealed in Gen Z workplace motivation studies.

Attracting the Future Workforce

More recently, prominent contractors have been talking the talk and trying to walk the walk toward inclusion. However, field management is not always included in the corporate training that is often directed at salaried staff. What if the highest stakes exist at the craft level? Pre-apprenticeship program ANEW outside Seattle has created a game-changing training called RISEUp. It emphasizes the role of psychological safety in creating a culture that will retain a future workforce. Founder, Karen Dove, created RISEUp so that she could “send [her female and minority students] out into an industry where they will be respected and included”, increasing the chance they would complete their apprenticeships. Participants engage on topics including civility, microinequities and respectful communication. Notably, the information is presented in scope and style to be presented and digested as part of the workday.

With the power and authority to influence their jobsites and crews, superintendents and other field managers do not need to wait for corporate visions or policies to establish cultures that value the support and inclusion of their people.

Mitigating current and future risks to their people, while increasing performance by the industry’s recognized metrics of success, is the superintendent’s case for psychological safety. The decision to pursue the necessary education, resource-sharing and transformational action must be made by these influential leaders, who so strongly influence the cultures of their teams.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800) 273-8255


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