By Robins & Morton Division Manager Eric Groat
Whether you call 2022 the “Great Resignation” or the “Great Reshuffle,” team culture has never been more important than it is now, and with good reason.
Finding qualified and committed people at every level is one of the key challenges facing the construction industry as the labor market remains extremely competitive. At the same time, our clients’ continued emphasis on speed to market, set against volatile supply chains, puts even more emphasis on teamwork.
According to a recent study by MIT, a toxic company culture is the strongest predictor of employee attrition and is 10 times more important than compensation when predicting turnover. The study identified toxic cultures by several elements that included lack of diversity, equity and inclusion; disrespect; unethical behavior; and failure to recognize and reward performance.
All those warning signs of a “bad culture” may seem easily identifiable, but are they as easy to spot in our everyday interactions? More importantly, do we recognize them in time to facilitate change within a team?
To answer this question, our first impulse may be to review the lagging indicators first. In the construction industry, these typically include the critical outcomes, such as staying on-target with the schedule, budget, profitability or employee retention. While these are benchmarks of a successful project, they’re not the first signs of trouble within a culture.
Instead, we should be focusing on leading indicators – Is there trust among our team members? Are we engaged in collaborating? How do we handle unethical behavior? Are team members recognized for their contributions and performances?
When we pivot toward proactively identifying indicators of a healthy or toxic culture, we’re able to determine the proper actions to either maintain that culture or reverse the negative changes we see. However, no matter its state, culture requires work.
While every industry and business is different, there are five red flags that I’ve found most universal in identifying the early stages of a toxic culture:
- Lack of communication. It’s alarming when two people who are on the same team are working from wildly different sets of information or have a completely different understanding of a goal or outcome. It’s a clear signal that there’s a broken link in the management structure, and that the team doesn’t understand their objective. In addition to chaotic and unproductive exchanges, not understanding desired outcomes also stifles innovation, which limits the potential of the project or work product.
- Lack of decision-making. Decisions fuel all forward progress. Developing a clear structure of decision makers and processes to tackle particularly challenging questions are foundational for a functional working relationship. When we see environments that don’t encourage timely responses to critical decisions, we could pull back the curtain and find dysfunctional relationships with managers, fear of company leadership, and team members who are unclear about the mission of their organization. Although no employee wants to make an error, positive and learning-focused environments recognize that people are fallible and will make errors. Our reaction to those errors directly reflects our culture.
- Withholding information or support. Not all information is fit for public consumption – whether it’s unconfirmed, too detailed for most, or simply irrelevant – but there’s a difference between filtering and withholding information. Filtering is done with good intentions to provide a team member with the information they need and clarity to complete their task. Withholding information is adversarial, often used as an instrument to influence power dynamics. If a team member begins withholding information, it’s a warning sign that they don’t want to work together to solve a problem.
- No action taken as a result of feedback. Feedback is a necessity for improving any workplace or team environment. When people place their trust in a team and provide constructive feedback, it can be a vulnerable experience. Another sign of a toxic culture is expecting team members to enter that vulnerable place with no intention of addressing their concerns.
- No motivation to improve. The final sign of a toxic culture can be summarized into a single word: apathy. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that we’ll experience change – personally, professionally and often at an exponential pace. Without a motivation to improve, a culture will become stagnant, leading to dissatisfied and frustrated team members.
While some of these signs may sound familiar, the good news is that it’s never too late to course correct. Here are a few tactics that have been successful in my experience:
- Provide a platform for feedback. Creating a mechanism for feedback is the first step to building trust with your team. Provide several avenues for team feedback such as performance reviews for one-on-one conversations, team health assessments, and companywide people satisfaction surveys. No matter how the feedback is collected, holding ourselves accountable to be transparent about what we received and how we plan to address it is essential to maintaining culture.
- Get the right people in the room. When working to address cultural problems, we naturally gravitate to having hard conversations with those whom we already have the greatest rapport. While those conversations may serve as a great sounding board, they’re unlikely to result in meaningful change. Only when we engage everyone and commit to healthy conflict among the team members who can initiate changed behavior can we truly expect an improved outcome.
- Hire and promote emotionally intelligent leaders. People will always be any organization’s greatest resource and having leaders who can navigate interpersonal relationships will make the difference when facing a culture crisis. One way to support this within your teams is to ensure you’re providing growth opportunities, and the only way to know what that may look like for a team member is by getting to know them. Establish a review structure for all team members, ensuring every employee has a structured touchpoint with their manager, at least twice year. There are also specific mentorship programs within the company that can help them reach their professional goals. However, most team trust is built in the day-to-day conversations – it’s why we emphasize the importance of teambuilding activities. All of these elements will help you get to know the strengths of your existing team members, and you can build a strong management structure as a result.
- See red flags for what they are. It’s easy to categorize a challenging interaction or an undesirable outcome as a one-off, but harder to admit when it may be a sign of a more significant problem. However, we’re better positioned to tackle incremental change than an entire cultural shift. Surfacing an incident before it becomes a long-term issue is a proactive solution to reduce the red flags, one by one.
- Pursuing partnerships that are culturally aligned with your organization. Business can be a lot like marriage. The phrase “opposites attract” isn’t often the case – two married people may have different hobbies or social batteries, but it’s rare that they have a completely different value systems. It’s a similar quandary in construction, with numerous long-term project partnerships. Inevitably, there will be friction between teams that don’t share collaborative and transparent practices. Projects are at their best when teams share critical values. While every business partnership won’t be a perfect match, prioritizing working with companies that share fundamental cultural characteristics has a greater opportunity for success.
Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing and maintaining culture, its building blocks are grounded in respect for people – respect for your employees, your business partners and your community. Using that as your culture’s guiding principle can assure a successful foundation for your team – no ping-pong table required.
Eric Groat is the Division Manager of Robins & Morton’s San Antonio office. He has more than 20 years of experience managing complex construction projects and is an advocate of Lean construction principles. Groat believes that an emphasis on culture, partnership and respect for people is key to revolutionizing the construction industry.