Communication breaks down on construction projects when people begin withholding information they think is unsafe to reveal. In their paper entitled “It’s Time to Tackle Your Team’s Undiscussables,” MIT Sloan authors reveal the dysfunction that arises from people being forbidden to question anything or specific topics being off-limits.
Here’s what’s behind two undiscussables, how they play out in construction, and what steps to take to reduce them.
When employees say they value something but fail to act as if they do, they hold spoken untruths. All the people who take part in this dynamic are sharing an illusion.
These undiscussables often manifest in issues about safety. A construction firm knows their clients put a premium on safety. So, out come the safety talks, the safety stand-downs, and the safety meetings. But when reality strikes, and safety might jeopardize the schedule or the budget, safety takes a back seat.
The trench is deeper than six feet, and it will take too long to get the required shoring set up. Or, it’s only a single flight of stairs, and getting drywall up the stairs and over a railing is too difficult and time-consuming. Or, a table saw guard binds on the material, so it is removed.
The spoken untruth is that safety is job one. In reality, though, safety is job one unless it threatens comfort, the schedule, or the budget.
This type of undiscussable also arises when crews try to protect the group. The spoken untruth is “we only use quality materials.” However, when they receive substandard lumber, they use it anyway because they’ve got a deadline. Besides, the lumber will get covered up anyway. The motivation is to protect the group from the possibility of not getting the work done on time.
The dollar costs of these undiscussables are hidden in several factors. Physical injuries, rework, lower productivity, reputational injury, and loss of client trust all affect the company’s profitability and long-term health. This undiscussable threatens everyone’s job security, too.
To break the cycle of spoken untruths, leadership must expose them and admit its own part in it. Keep communications channels open for alternative viewpoints, and teach people that criticism isn’t synonymous with disloyalty. It is always better to see the hypocrisy yourself because your customers and partners probably already do.
Think, But Don’t Speak
These undiscussables often hide the truth. You see it in action in construction when you hold meetings and the only person speaking is the meeting leader. Even when talking about hot-button issues like schedule changes and rework, the rank-and-file remains silent, perhaps shifting around uncomfortably a bit. People will publicly show approval but criticize privately.
It also plays out in crew interactions among themselves. The crew leader delivers unpleasant news, distancing themselves from the decision by blaming senior management. Or the leader delivers the news, and people stay silent because they fear raising an objection or asking a clarifying question.
In these instances, people are leaving their views unspoken, usually because they fear sharing them. They may be afraid of a real or imagined risk. Either way, it means fear is dominating, and that’s always a recipe for communications breakdowns. When people work in such environments, they privately resort to cynicism and sarcasm. Since they won’t speak, they instead use negative non-verbals to show disagreement.
These undiscussables often develop with team leaders who have emotional or erratic management styles. When people disagree with them, the leader lashes out and responds harshly. People working with these autocratic leaders eventually learn it’s best not to challenge them, make suggestions, or ask questions. That leads to blocked information flow, mistakes, and less innovation. Companies with strong hierarchies based on power and status either intentionally or unwittingly build barriers to people speaking their minds.
‘Think, but don’t speak’ undiscussables directly affect the talent you gain and keep. That has a long-term effect on the business’s health because a construction company’s most critical asset is its people. This undiscussable also affects project finances by stopping the information flow about factors that could potentially affect the schedule, materials, equipment, and labor.
Since these undiscussables usually start within management, that’s where you have to break them down. People in charge need to recognize and admit it when they have created environments full of fear and uncertainty. The actions needed to turn the situation around include:
- Inviting comments and discussion
- Digging deeper to uncover sensitive issues
- Encouraging dissenting views with no fear of retribution
- Reducing the weight of authority in meetings
Since all undiscussables affect communication, you can use technology to improve information flow and reduce fear within the organization. Technology also provides many options for setting the example and showing how your company has made undiscussables discussable again.