Construction demands good communication
As a child we played a game which I’m sure many of you played. We sat in a circle and one person whispered a message in to their neighbour’s ear who then passed the message to their neighbour by whispering in their ear, who passed the message on, and so it went around the circle to eventually reach the person who started the message. Invariably the final message was vastly different to the original. This childhood game clearly demonstrates how messages get misinterpreted.
This is even more so in construction where communication is key to a successful project. Imagine on a project if the client said to the architect; “build me a house”, who interpreted it as; “build me a palace”, Then told the contractor what to build and they built; “a warehouse”. We laugh, but this is sometimes almost what happens.
Diversity in construction
One of the most important aspects of managing a construction project is to be able to manage, work with, and interact with people. Construction projects involve a number of different parties, such as the client, managing contractor, subcontractors, members of the public, Design Engineers, Architects, managers within the company, project staff, tradespeople, general workers, suppliers and their representatives, local businesses and building inspectors. Many of these people come from diverse countries, cultures, languages, socio economic backgrounds, and educational backgrounds.
In construction we may have to deal with an irate member of the public who is say upset that our delivery truck drove in front of them, discuss a design problem with the Designer, deal with the client’s banker, or talk to a construction worker in a third world country who may never have had a formal job before (let alone, construction experience). All of these people have to be treated in an equal manner.
No matter how frustrated we are, or how bad the day has been, there is simply no place on a construction site where you can hide from dealing with people and their problems. We have to use all our people skills to negotiate, persuade, and lead the people working on the project, while at all times remaining calm. We have to establish and maintain relations with the client, the design team and our team. In all of this we also have to be a coach, a teacher and a mentor to their team.
Understanding the diversity of people in construction and being sensitive to cultural differences can be useful when negotiating, since different techniques can be used depending on the person’s background. One technique may yield little or no success with one individual, while another technique will work. Understanding the cultures and backgrounds of the people working on a project will enable better relationships and teams to be formed.
Communication is something that we have to do on construction all the time, every day. It’s both verbal and written.
- be civil
- be clear and concise
- be persuasive and forceful enough to ensure instructions are followed
- achieve the best outcomes for the project,
- be effective
- take into account relationships
- take into account the level of understanding the other person has
- not be condescending
But communication isn’t just about giving and receiving instructions, it’s also about keeping the various stake holders informed about developments on the project, irrespective of whether they are project staff, workers, subcontractors, suppliers, client representatives, the client or neighbours. The amount and level of communication will vary according to circumstances and the individual. Communication is often best given verbally, which could be at meetings, directly one-on-one, or via telephone. However it may sometimes be in the form of letters or memos that may be addressed to specific individuals, or may be just generalised memos handed to all affected parties, or displayed on project notice boards.
When issuing letters, emails, memos and verbal communications thought must go into the type of communication. Inappropriate communications can cause irreparable harm to the project, individuals and personal reputations. Often things are said, or written in haste, which are regretted long after the event.
Sometimes a conversation with the client over a cup of coffee can yield far better results than a formal letter.
Communication is a two-way street
Part of successful communication is also to listen, to make sure you understand what the other person is saying and ask questions when unsure. Sometimes it's also about what the person isn't saying. Again, people from different cultural backgrounds may say things which we misunderstand or misinterpret because we don't understand them properly.
The right channels
On large projects, communications may be addressed to the client, the client’s representative, subcontractors or suppliers, and these may be issued by various staff members. It’s always important the correct channels of communications are used, and only authorised staff members communicate with the relevant parties. If more than one member of staff communicates with any of the parties it can cause confusion, and result in the other party receiving mixed and confusing communications, which is not only unprofessional but can lead to problems.
Communication should be directed to the correct person. Often communication is addressed to a person who isn't authorised to receive communication, or communication by-passes their manager. This may mean that the communication isn't acted on.
All staff must be aware of the communication protocol, and all correspondence should be carried out in a professional manner. All correspondence of a contractual or financial nature should be reviewed by the Project Manager.
Having said the above it is important that some communication is formalised, particularly communication of a contractual nature. Verbal and hand-shake communications are open to misinterpretation and even to being forgotten completely. It’s also useful to keep formal minutes of meetings which ensure that all attendees are reminded of what was agreed and what needs to be actioned.
Sometimes verbal discussions should be formalised by a letter afterwards. That formal letter to the client may be better received after that chat over coffee.
Many of the problems on construction projects can be avoided if we communicated better.
What problems have you encountered in construction because of poor communication?
Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Paul Netscher is the author of the popular books 'Successful Construction Project Management: The Practical Guide'and 'Building a Successful Construction Company: The Practical Guide'. Paul's new book 'Construction Claims: A Short Guide for Contractors' has just been published. These books are available on Amazon and other online book stores. Paul publishes articles regularly on LinkedIn and his website. Visit www.pn-projectmanagement.com to read other similar helpful articles.
Paul writes regular articles for other websites, gives lectures, mentors, and is available for podcasts and interviews.