Expert Commentary

Mindfulness in Construction Communication and Management

The realities of construction pose various challenges to productive as well as safe operations and the prevention of worker injuries. With a majority of the work performed by subcontractor personnel, managing project productivity and safety becomes more complex and challenging to manage efficiently and control effectively.


Construction Safety
November 2019

Effective delegation management and operational control that results in high performance, quality, and safe outcomes depend on the "right communication." In most situations, the owner holds the general contractor (GC) or construction manager (CM) field operation accountable for performance, quality, and safety of the project. Communication between the general contractor or CM's superintendent and the various subcontractor foremen becomes critical to ensuring that everyone is understanding and fully engaged in the project requirements and expectations.

As a result, the project performance, quality, and safety responsibility of all parties become unavoidably linked. Difficulties arise from the contractual relationships and the conflict between self-interest and that of the project as a whole. The differences in organizational culture, values, climate, and operational strategy, the human dynamics of the personnel involved, their individual goals and objectives, the worksite climate, level of trust, inclination to cooperate, these as well as numerous other factors come into play. To holistically address this, a fundamental change in the project delivery process may be required.

Project Delivery Practices

Under the prevailing project delivery practices, subcontractors are generally selected based on the lowest price. This may place pressures on the subcontractor's profits, which drives the controlling of cost. The direct cost of work is largely in materials followed by the cost of labor, equipment, and indirect costs. The cost of material is somewhat set by the economic conditions, and more or less similar for all of the subcontractors competing for that work.

The subcontractor has a number of ways to control the cost of labor. Some of the options include the subcontractor "pushing" the workforce to be more productive, thereby using fewer people or involving less time. They can also try hiring less-experienced workers, thereby paying them less (excepting union labor). Just about every choice the subcontractor has in one way or another increases the risk of creating discrepancies in the work production or process, which may affect the quality of the resulting work put in place or increases the risk of injury to the workers.

So, the traditional project delivery process starts off by the construction manager or general contractor selecting the subcontractor with the most competitive price, who then may dispatch less-experienced foremen and possibly a marginally competent workforce to prosecute the work. This places the GC's or CM's project staff at a severe disadvantage in trying to meet the owner's project expectations as well as those of their own company. All of the steps mentioned increase the project risk and leads to the increased potential of some form of discrepancy, failure, or loss.

Every process and practice must be evaluated and modified to improve the coordination of planning, organizing, directing, controlling, delegating, and communicating so that the systems are integrated and aligned to eliminate waste and risk, while improving efficiency and fostering effectiveness, as well as creating a cooperative and friendly work climate in order to enable the creation of value in every step of the project delivery process. Absent such a comprehensive effort, the traditional, ineffective approach to construction safety management will continue with its focus on symptom interventions and the application of ineffective techniques, resulting in short-term gains with potential long-term failures in devising a risk-free and safe workplace environment on the project.

So far, the discussion has addressed the operational aspect of the project delivery process. It becomes even more complicated when the GC's or CM's safety manager gets involved with subcontractor workers         in dealing with their actions as it relates to the overall project safety issues. Given the advantages of specialization (subcontracting), the need for efficiency, the importance of cost control, benefit of fast-tracking, etc., subcontracting is going to remain an integral part of the project delivery process, which highlights the need to radically improve the various elements of the project delivery systems, processes, and practices, as well as procedures to ensure the success of all the organizations involved and the individual participants. This sheds light on another area of importance—the availability of reliable and timely information, communicated in an effective and robust manner. "Mindful communication" is a novel approach to improving communication, enhancing delegation, furthering understanding, and increasing workplace safety.

Regardless of issues in general, successful project delivery depends on sharing common practices and values and establishing efficient and effective communication pathways within the day-to-day planning, execution, and interactions of everyone working on the project. For the project to be done in an effective and efficient manner, the worksite must create and communicate a culture of accountability where everyone feels responsible as well as accountable for their specific portion of the work. To achieve this, the people working on the project have to utilize mindful communication as well as devise a mindful project delivery process.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is an offshoot of Eastern meditation practices. It has been found to be useful in some preventive applications in medicine and mental health areas specifically in stress reduction and management, as well as some forms of depression and anxiety interventions. Mindfulness in execution or performance is a state wherein people have an acute awareness of the situation and/or environment they are in. It is a way of focusing or concentrating on whatever it is the person is engaged in or finds themselves in. The application of mindfulness has been explored in various communication settings and found to have a positive effect on the process, fostering understanding as well as outcomes or results.

Mindful communication implies that the information is communicated and processed in a mindful way. In communication that is mindful, the person trying to communicate with another strives to clearly articulate the message so as to elicit understanding.

Mindful Communication Diagram 1 - Furst - November 2019

The person receiving the message tries to actively listen and then interpret the meaning of the message in the context to which it relates. The understanding of the message usually results in a nonverbal response by the recipient, for which a sender of the message should be looking.

Mindful Communication Diagram 2 - Furst - November 2019

Depending on the perceived nonverbal response to the message, the initiator of the conversation has two options. If the response indicates misunderstanding of the intent of the message, the sender must then change the message in such a way that the recipient understands what it is and, more importantly, responds positively by accepting the suggested solution.

Mindful Communication Diagram 3 - Furst - November 2019

If the response is positive, then the sender can expand on the subject matter, provide additional information, or thank the worker for his or her understanding and continue with their walk-around. Mindful communication is concerned with the understanding of the meaning and the significance of the information resulting in cooperation. This is especially true in construction where the situation and associated risk may be continually changing.

Mindful communication recognizes the significance of the facts and how they pertain to the immediate or context of the situation. Mindful communication must be integrated into the project's management practices and procedures to ensure a robust understanding of plans, execution, and obligations on the part of everyone. This is especially relevant to the management of safe operations for the following.

  • The worker
    • May have work habits that involve an element of risk
    • Wants to meet the foreman's production expectations and so may take on some additional risk
  • The GC's safety managers
    • Observe unsafe behavior and want to get the worker to correct it
    • Without having direct oversight of the subcontractor's workforce, need to convince them to change their behavior

This requires a mindful approach to clearly describe the risk associated with the activity and then convey the information related to a safer way to execute the work and, more importantly, to elicit understanding and acceptance of the suggested change on the part of the worker.

Effective Management (Command and Control)

Regardless of the selected project delivery method in construction, the prevailing practice model requires cooperation and coordination in the execution of the work by everyone. It is also dependent on engaging in commonly accepted practices as well as utilizing established procedures involving communication means and methods for the dissemination and sharing of project-related information. Since the GC's or CM's project staff are ultimately accountable for the project's performance, they must have an effective way of commanding, controlling, and delegating responsibility, as well as conveying a sense of accountability to the subcontractor's project personnel for their portion of the work.

Subcontractors generally have fixed-price contracts. This means that they arrived at the price anticipating the use of specific means and methods. Therefore, the GC's superintendent cannot direct them to perform the work in a way that is contrary to those intended methods. So, they may need to suggest an option or possible solutions to assist the subcontractor personnel in meeting the project's expected results. The superintendent may have to engage in a mindful communication process utilizing some basic command, control, and delegation techniques to communicate what needs to be accomplished within the prescribed time.

This, to some degree, applies to the safety manager as well. Working safely may be seen differently by the worker than the safety manager.

  • Mindful management guidelines
    • Be aware of the capabilities, knowledge, and motivation of the person you are communicating with.
    • Understand their reality, constraints, and the situation in general.
    • Plainly describe the existing situation, the risks, and the possible negative outcome.
    • Clearly define and communicate the desired means or methods to alleviate the risks involved.
    • Ask for input, concerns, requirements, and any existing or anticipated impediments.
    • Review their performance requirements, time factors, expectations, and obligations to succeeding activities of others and project overarching goals.
    • Stress the need for coordination as well as cooperation.
    • Monitor progress.
    • Provide feedback, and assist in necessary problem-solving toward goal attainment.
  • Communicating mindfully. The project superintendent needs to communicate mindfully with the subcontractor's responsible personnel (foremen) to discuss the project's expectation of the subcontractor's responsibilities and obligation. They have to make sure that communication is made clearly and understandably, as well as mindfully. The following are four key aspects to keep in mind.
    • It is important to meet face to face with minimal distractions or a severe time limitation. This is especially important for the first and other key discussions. This conversation is not just about production but about the responsibility to other involved organizations and of ensuring that they meet their commitments so as to enable others to proceed as planned. Be sure to confirm the clear understanding and the sincere commitment about timing, performance, and the controls necessary to deliver on promises by the end of the discussion.
    • Confirm the foreman's understanding of their organization's obligation and commitment. It is not effective to ask, "Do you understand?" or "Are we agreed," because this invariably gets a "Yes" response, even if the other is totally confused or may not fully agree. Instead, say, "I want to be sure that I have communicated what I have intended to communicate to you. Please tell me in your own words what you have heard so far?" This tells the other person that you want to make sure that you have successfully communicated without suggesting anything negative about the other person's listening abilities, understanding, or competence.
    • Ask for and discuss any needs or wants, as well as any perceived impediments or conditions that may impede the other's ability to perform as promised. Inform them that you are available to assist them in any way you can to ensure that they accomplish their obligations.
    • Make sure to follow up to show interest and commitment, as well as offer support or any assistance that may be needed to resolve problems or remove barriers. It is also important to avoid micromanaging. When things are proceeding as planned, and it is appropriate, provide positive feedback, as it will motivate others to continue striving in their efforts toward the goal.

Mindfulness is an antecedent that may affect the quality of the conversation and the clarity of the communication that will invariably impact the resulting performance. Should the GC's superintendent or safety practitioner fail to mindfully communicate the information, requirement, or expectation to the subcontractor's foreman, or one of its workers who may not share the same vision, value, belief, or understanding, then there will be a failure in communication, and the ultimate outcome will be different than what was intended or expected. This highlights the importance of shared mindfulness as it improves the quality of the exchange resulting in mutual understanding, which increases the potential for improved production quality and/or safety on the project.

Conclusion

Mindful management is not only a significant part of the project delivery process but an integral part of creating a productive and safe work environment for all of the participants involved. Environments that have residual risks that are ignored or unidentified are error provocative as well as predisposed to producing discrepancies, inefficiencies, waste, or losses and, more importantly, the potential for worker injuries. Given the complexity and uncertainty that generally are associated with just about any construction project, mindful communication and management become vital to project success.


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