Trust Matters More Than Ever—Even in the AEC Industry

Trust matters more than ever in a design and construction services industry dealing with crisis conditions; these 5 building blocks can foster teamwide trust.
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Nobody is in business to fail, yet many businesses lack the one sentiment from their employees, partners and clients that is most essential to success: Trust. Only 37% of construction professionals globally believe their organizations have high levels of trust, and there are significant gaps in performance and profitability between firms with high trust levels and those with even above average levels, according to a new study from FMI and Autodesk.

Of course the construction industry is not alone; since 2000, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer has followed the evolution of trust in governments, businesses and organizations globally and documented the erosion of trust people and employees have in all of these establishments. Yet this steady spiral of diminishing trust comes at a time when these stakeholders need it most. As the new “Trust Matters: The High Cost of Low Trust” report makes clear, higher levels of trust in companies and project teams correlates with significantly higher profit margins, employee retention and repeat business.

That can add millions of dollars to our bottom lines annually when we’re facing business as usual. Now as we deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can mean the difference between success or failure as hundreds of construction services companies face unbridled uncertainty.  

Why Trust Matters Even More in the AEC Industry

In fact, “trust in teams is nonnegotiable.…The bottom line: teams do not perform well without trust,” a seminal Center for Creative Leadership 2017 research report concluded. But it’s even more critical in the construction industry, where our projects involve an army of collaborators—from architects, engineers and interior designers to program and project managers, contractors, tradesmen and more. Every member of this expansive ecosystem has to trust that every aspect of the requisite work will be completed as specified and on time. Thanks to the reality that many teams are involved, trust must be maintained internally between co-workers in each company, and externally among all the firms that work on each construction project.

Ironically, given the complicated yet significant nature of trust required to execute and complete projects, trust has often been regarded as an “outcome of good projects” rather than the reason why projects succeeded, and “nice to have rather than an attribute that directly impacts performance,” the “Trust Matters” study noted.

Using Trust to Manage What We Cannot See

Yet at McKissack & McKissack, the events of recent weeks have shown us that trust not only enables us to achieve our goals, it changes everything as we strive to keep projects going, or even accelerate them due to extenuating circumstances, all while working in new conditions.  In the best of times, it takes a high level of trust to collaborate effectively, keep performance and engagement high, maintain excellence and meet deadlines—individually and as a team.  But the workplace changes spurred by COVID-19 have taken trust to a new level for our company.  

Personally, I had to learn to trust two things:  the technology we are using as we work remotely, and that our team is working as efficiently and effectively as possible—even when I can’t see them work. That’s because we’re so used to collaborating right next to each other in so many situations, be it in design studios or at project sites. But I know I wasn’t alone in this leap of faith, which I like to think of as imagination meeting reality. “We’re all learning to trust each other a little more and have confidence that we’re producing what needs to be done, not out walking the dog,” Ron Kessler, our national practice leader in architecture and design, told me.

5 Building Blocks to Foster Trust, Collaboration and Cohesion

Although we’ve experienced a learning curve with respect to trust these past few weeks, much of it has come from adapting our core beliefs about trust and collaboration to this new reality. We believe five measures we’ve long embraced yet strengthened in past weeks are foundational to building trust, collaboration and cohesion among team members. These are:

1. Empowering communication: Create a culture that welcomes input from all team members. Everyone must be allowed to share ideas; be able to trust that their ideas will be heard; and believe effective ideas can be implemented. At McKissack, leadership team members’ “doors”—both physical and virtual—are never closed, including mine.

2. Maintaining consistency: Be consistent in company practices and procedures, from meetings and project planning processes to reports and employee development opportunities. Since going remote, we’ve had virtual team meetings weekly that include everyone in the company to foster trust in our new reality. Routine eliminates uncertainty and the anxiety it can cause. For team members, knowing what to expect from colleagues and for themselves builds organizational trust.  We’ve also started a coaching program for team members should they have issues to address, a program we will continue permanently.

3. Embracing transparency and sincerity: This extends to every aspect of a company. Share as much information as possible about how the company and team is performing; everyone wants their organization to succeed and feel like they’re a part of it. Define everyone’s roles, responsibilities and expectations upfront and give them ongoing and constructive performance feedback. Be forthright and honest; it’s impossible to believe leaders who say they want to listen to their teams but don’t give them a chance to speak, or respond to what they are saying sincerely in the near-term and proactively as they find solutions to team issues.  

4. Simplifying collaboration: Collaboration is a core value of our business; to succeed and excel it’s critical to make it as easy as possible. Tech-enabled processes, from data and document sharing to video and telecommunication services, must be accessible, seamless and state-of-the-art. The biggest lesson from this crisis is something we’ve known all along:  Be prepared. We’re so lucky to have Andrew Corn, our tech leader at McKissack; his veritable thirst for new technologies has made us early adaptors again and again.

5. Mitigating Uncertainty: Honest communication about the state of a company—be it bad or good—is necessary to battle the fear, anxiety or bad will that uncertainty can breed. Uncertainty can cause employees to fear the worst and damage trust; eliminate it by addressing issues or even bad news head on. We must be open and honest, and even admit uncertainties when necessary, to establish true teamwide trust.

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