Meeting the Ongoing Need for Soft Skills Training in Construction

Why managerial power and authority are no longer enough to guarantee safety and drive productivity in today’s workforce

There was a time -in the not-so-distant past- when fire-breathers ruled the landscape of professional business.

For decades, supervisory and management personnel for various industries have been hired on the basis of their (often fierce) ability to motivate workers, by any means necessary, to accomplish the financial objectives and goals of a business. In fact, this type of leadership has been glorified, giving life and longevity to sayings of which you’re likely familiar:

“My way or the highway”, “take it or leave it”, or, “there are other fish in the sea”, are a few that come to mind, implying that in most situations, an employee is left with little or no choice but to accept the decision-making of their superiors; or, suffer the risk of potential job loss. Now, some credence can be lent to this philosophy of ultimatum, as, there are (some) circumstances in business in which argument or even polite disagreement with the status quo is simply not allowed.

Take safety around electrical devices as an example:

Have you ever considered why most electrical appliances are manufactured with warning labels that stress the importance of users never operating the appliance either in or near water? The science and dangers of electrical conductivity most certainly predate the advent of modern technology; so, naturally, we don’t wish to be constantly reminded of the things we already know. Plenty of people have done it without incident, so as long as you’re really careful, it’s perfectly safe to blow-dry your hair while listening to the radio in the bathtub, right? Manufacturers don’t affix warning labels to potentially dangerous products just because it’s a universally-accepted ‘best practice’. They do it, because if they fail to, people may get hurt or even lose their lives. Rightfully so, it’s not a business decision that’s open for debate.

No business is exempt from the rigors of managing safety, risk, budgets, schedules, and personnel; and, the construction industry has never been an exception to this. So, out of sheer necessity to prevent injuries and save lives, the industry was forced to adopt an often inflexible, no-nonsense approach to safety. Over time, this need manifested into generations of ‘fire-breathing’ project managers and superintendents being hired to run construction projects, backed by the wholehearted support of company owners, who, for many years in this industry, appeared to value profit over people.

As the old Bob Dylan song goes, ‘the times they are a-changing’. Acceptable workplace conditions have also changed; and, adaptability to these changes is becoming more important than ever. Soft skills are emerging to the forefront of leadership training, as the days of ‘my way or the highway’ -while still visible in the rearview mirror- are slowly becoming a remnant of the past. With increases in job injuries and fatalities, workplace violence, discrimination lawsuits and employee turnover, companies are having to endorse new methods for engaging, motivating, and retaining their valuable employees. Companies in the construction industry have begun to embrace the reality that while profits will always be a high priority, the costs and operational impacts associated with injuries, fatalities, civil suits and turnover can quickly erase those profits, while simultaneously threatening a company’s reputation and viability.

Soft skills such as interviewing methods, diversity and inclusion training, and conflict resolution techniques are helping immensely in the workplace to bridge a communication gap that historically, has been the primary responsibility of a company’s Human Resources personnel. For companies that do not have full-fledged HR departments, however, soft skills training for both employees and managers alike is becoming an indispensable component of policy administration and adherence, (effective) performance management, and harmonious workplace relations. In today’s fast-paced and demanding work environments, the almighty dollar continues to drive budgets and schedules.

However, this does not mean that safety takes a backseat to productivity.  

While there will always be appropriate places and times in business for more draconian styles of leadership, the companies who are making the effort to integrate this training into their employee development practices, over time, will enjoy more of the fruits of their labor (AKA – profits) as compared to the companies who ignore the importance and necessity of soft skills. Increased work demands place a premium on employee productivity; and, as such, companies have less time to address all employee concerns through a Human Resources team. Soft skills are affording companies greater freedom, latitude, and flexibility with their human resource efforts, while empowering their leaders to more effectively resolve issues before they snowball into larger (and, usually, more expensive) problems.

Keep in mind, that the cost of employee development is an ongoing expenditure. You can decide to spend money on the front end with training; or, you can spend it on the back end replacing employees, negotiating citations, legal fees, or worse. So, the inevitable choice lies with you. Will you choose the iron fist, or the gentle hand? Will you empower your leaders to breathe fire, or will you teach them to extinguish flames before they spread? Your profits will likely tell the tale-

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