Managing Yourself Through Construction Politics
It is no secret that issues arise during important construction projects. But what if those issues aren’t necessarily based on technical issues?
Speaking to Jamil Soucar, we explore what happens when politics or opposing personalities cause problems down the construction line.
What “undisclosed causes” can cause issues during construction projects?
The undisclosed causes for conflicts on construction projects have to do with human nature. Construction project teams involve a wide variety of people, who never met before, including but not limited to architects, owners, construction managers, inspectors, community members, city officials, general contractors, subcontractors and other related parties. Sometimes, conflicts on sites arise because of personality conflicts between the parties or egos. No one admits that these are the real causes but instead, they look through the contract documents to find clauses that may give their personal position a contractual justification if interpreted a certain way. Before you know it, the contract clauses become weapons and not simply terms and conditions. That is why I call them the “undisclosed factors”. These conflicts may escalate to litigation.
I’ve seen conflicts that could have been resolved in a few minutes, escalate into litigation because the parties mixed personal considerations with the problem.
How do these causes differ to more common problems, such as poor construction plans?
When the conflicts are about the technical issues like a bad design, site conditions, errors and omissions, and when these conflicts are treated professionally away from touching people’s egos or getting them mixed up in personality conflicts, the solutions and discussions become purely technical and will have a better chance of being resolved without escalation. After all the parties involved are professionals and are knowledgeable regarding these technical topics, each from his/her role on the job. So, try to keep these conflicts without triggering any personal conflict.
How do these differences make it harder for parties to work through a dispute?
I’ve seen conflicts that could have been resolved in a few minutes, escalate into litigation because the parties mixed personal considerations with the problem. For example: an inspector who had a previous conflict with a subcontractor on a past project giving the same subcontractor a very hard time on the current project. This can escalate the tension on the job where the parties use the contract clauses to make things harder on the job. That can lead to delays, financial losses and other problems. I’ve worked on a project where the general contractor was terminated and after two years of litigation, the result was getting the same contractor back to finish the job. It turned out that the problems were caused by a difficult inspector.
What I used to tell my construction management students is that their job is going to be 20% construction knowledge and 80% people skills.
How do ‘politics’ cause an issue here?
If the project is public works like public schools or cities, then politics can be an integral part of the project. For example, promises made to the community by the elected official regarding completion dates, or a certain product that the community became sensitive about, or even the colour of the exterior paint, or it could be a tree that is important and the play yard designs have to accommodate to save that particular tree. I’ve been through all of these scenarios and it adds tension to the daily progression of what otherwise would have been a normal running project. The construction manager must be aware of these elements.
What is an effective way of managing many different people and personalities during a project? How can this prevent a dispute?
What I used to tell my construction management students is that their job is going to be 20% construction knowledge and 80% people skills. The construction manager is the focal point of communication and the main liaison among the various people involved. The effective way of managing this aspect is to ask and learn from day one about the people involved, the various goals and agenda and any hot political matters.
Last but not least: be honest and fair. That is the best way to prevent dispute.
Second, I strongly recommend a partnering day before the project starts where the players can meet each other and break the ice before getting into the daily issues of the project. Get to know each other as people and not solely as ‘the architect’ or ‘the inspector’ etc.
As the construction manager, try to understand the liabilities and goals of each of the players and do your best to help them win. Ease up their tension by not placing them in difficult situations. The construction manager has to navigate through this maze while focussing on the main goal which is the successful completion of the project. That can be easily said but I can tell you it is very difficult to do in some cases. If the players are willing partners, it will happen. Sometimes, no matter how much I try to project this positive dynamic, someone insists on having conflicts which force me to react tough and dive into the clash. My last piece of advice is to try to resolve conflicts as they arise. Don’t let it fester for a long time and don’t let the egos kick in. Last but not least: be honest and fair. That is the best way to prevent dispute.
Arc & Line, LLC
My name is Jamil Soucar. I’ve been in the construction industry since 1983. I hold a Bachelor degree in Civil Engineering and certificate in Construction Management and have a Construction Management consulting Business in Los Angeles, California where we consult to general contractors, owners, architects, and provide expert witness service to construction attorneys. Throughout my career, I’ve held a wide variety of construction positions working in various roles, from digging dirt in a crawl space to a Senior Project Manager overseeing over 560 projects from inception to closeout. I’ve spoken in several seminars, offered training programs to many construction professionals, taught Construction Management and Scheduling in a local college. In performing so many different roles including, superintendent, project manager for contractors, construction manager consulting to owners, civil engineering design, drafting surveys and more, gave me a well-rounded perspective about the various players involved in projects. Understanding other people’s perspectives of the job helped me become a better construction manager. I enjoy the continuous challenges to solve new problems every day. Even after all these years I still learn new things on every project. When I taught Construction Management at night to working adults, all I requested the students to do is attend and listen. I never opened a textbook; I presented the whole course explaining the various principles from my real life experience. I got very high evaluation grades from students and they felt that they learned the most in my class compared to their other classes taught in the standard ways. So, I decided to share this idea with others by writing a Construction management book offering real life perspectives and lessons. The book was published and got 3 awards. The book’s title is “Real Life Construction Management Guide from A – Z”.