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In 2015, I wrote my first article for Plumbing Engineer magazine. The article was about a design/assist experience with trade partners on a 165,000-square-foot ambulatory surgery center in Burlington, Wis. The article is titled “Design Assist is Built on Communication and Trust.” It was a reflection of the success between two individuals, Joe Wilfert of Martin Peterson Co. and myself, who used these behaviors to make a project successful.
Reflecting on that article, I don’t think anything about it was too revolutionary. At the time, I thought Joe and I had come across some amazing trick nobody knew, that we were two engineers who had uncovered the secret to project success and needed to share it with the world.
My perspective now, after working on some other high-performing teams, is that Joe and I didn’t invent anything new, but we were fortunate enough to experience the success of a project with strong communication and trust early on in our careers.
When I think about the best projects I have worked on, it’s been these two behaviors that were prevalent. Inversely, when it’s been a challenging project, I can usually point to a lack of communication and trust as the leading indicators to failure.
Who Would You Want to Work With?
Which of these traits is more important? Would you rather have a leader who you can trust or who has good communication skills? In a perfect world, you would have both. If you had to pick, which person would you want on your team? The two fictional scenarios below offer up a perplexing decision.
Meet Stacey. She has been on the team for five years and, after being licensed, she is running her first project for a large data center. Stacey is a great communicator. She offers amazing presentation skills and can stay on top of her tasks and the needs of her team and leadership. Stacey also can talk to the client from a high-level engineering perspective.
The recent problem with Stacey is that after several incidents, the team doesn’t quite trust her. Even though her work is very good, she has failed to meet certain deadlines. She often is heard speaking poorly of others and tends to focus on herself instead of the project team. Stacey has been made aware of this in her performance reviews.
Meet Frank. He is a 14-year civil engineer with a lot of project experience under his belt. Frank, being the veteran engineer that he is, has established himself as someone who can get things done. Having to deal with regulatory agencies and clients much of the time, he has a lot of experience in the industry on getting past code discrepancies and seemingly knows all the local requirements in his state. Frank also is well-versed with the codes and regulations as a civil engineer and his team has his back.
The client and his team trust his direction. However, Frank’s biggest downfall is his lack of communication skills. Both internally and externally, Frank often fails to relay critical pieces of information, leaving the team holding the ball. He struggles to keep employees under him due to this gap and has been made aware of this for years in his performance reviews.
So, who do you want to work with? Stacey or Frank? There’s no debating that each of them has pros and cons. What is a harder debate is determining which pros are better and which cons are worse.
Let’s focus on Stacey. The positives are that it sounds as if the client and her project teams are getting the information they need; it’s just not always at the time they need it. She is new to her role; with that lack of experience, there is room for improvement. Missing deadlines is quite disturbing, as well as knowing that her team is not fully supportive. If a client continues to be disappointed, they will likely show their frustration by taking their business elsewhere.
Now, let’s assess Frank. His team trusts him to get things done and that is, as we’ve all experienced, very important. However, having poor communication can be really detrimental to the success of a project. It can not only reflect badly on you if you’re working with him, but it could also likely lead to a poor client experience and result in loss of project work.
I do like that my civil engineer is an expert in his field. That experience can really pay off for a project team. However, you wonder if Frank is in these situations due to his poor communication skills.
Assessing Behavioral Traits for Team Success
As a leader on your team or someone who is managing people, you find yourself weighing these personal traits and assessing them constantly. How is this person going to work on this project? Will they be able to meet these deadlines? Will the client get along with them? Are they going to improve the project team or detract?
In the Frank versus Stacey debate, you have to assume good intentions all around. It’s possible that the appropriate training was never received. It’s possible that in their reviews, nobody really ever gave them the unfiltered story. Whatever the reason is, let’s assume that they can both improve their weaknesses.
With that being said, I think what we’re talking about here is the challenge of regaining trust versus teaching someone to be a better communicator. It seems as if both are achievable, but the trust hill might be steeper to climb. People tend to hold grudges and, as unfortunate as that is, will probably make Stacey’s improvement effort much harder than Frank’s.
If you’re wondering where you fall in these behavioral traits, you might want to ask your peers their honest assessment of you. That act alone is beneficial to the opinions other people have of you. It shows your team that you are interested in self-improvement. And if you think you are good to go in both traits, you might want to reconsider. Even the best have opportunities for improvement.
This is my last column writing for Plumbing Engineer. After six years, 22 columns and more than 30,000 words, it’s time to give you some new perspective. I really appreciate the magazine’s platform that they’ve given me over the years. They have an amazing appetite for different perspectives in our industry. I implore you to reach out to them if you have content you think the world is interested in.
I also want to thank my family and HGA for their support during the times I was writing these articles. I hope they were worth your time to read.
“Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing [about].” — Benjamin Franklin