Breaking down trust dynamics across project teams
In 2019, Autodesk and FMI conducted research on trust in the construction industry, measuring the costs and benefits of different levels of trust within construction organizations and across project teams. The published report, “Trust Matters: The High Cost of Low Trust,” includes the input and opinions of over 2,500 construction professionals from eight countries and four continents. We found that construction firms with high levels of trust experience unique benefits, including:
- Improved Collaboration: Organizations with the highest levels of trust are twice as likely to report that collaboration is central to how they work.
- Greater Schedule Confidence: Organizations where trust is very high are twice as confident about meeting their project schedule as those where trust is “above average.”
- Increased Employee Retention: Firms with the highest levels of trust had the lowest levels of voluntary turnover. Turnover rates are good – staff are choosing to stay – at the majority of firms with the highest trust (56%) compared to nearly a third of firms (32%) where trust is above average.
- Greater Repeat Business: At firms where trust is very high, the majority of respondents (57%) say more than four out of five of their projects are repeat business.
As construction projects bring together hundreds of people from different backgrounds and organizations, the research also measured trust across project stakeholders on the jobsite. Given the complexity of work and the number of people on site, we wanted to better understand what trust looked like on the jobsite. Between stakeholders, where was there high trust? Alternatively, where was trust the lowest?
To better understand the trust dynamics within teams and on projects, we asked each organization to identify the areas of high or low trust on the jobsite. Below, we aggregated these responses based on the company type and mapped them to the stakeholder that they evaluated.
The General Contractor is considered the “middle-man” in construction. They do not do the trade specific work; rather, they bring all specialty trades together to complete the work. Their success depends on how well everyone around them works. As a result, they have high levels of communication and collaboration with all stakeholders.
The mapping below represents how General Contractors classified trust amongst their peers on the jobsite. For example, 72% of General Contractors reported higher levels of trust for Owners compared to 28% of General Contractors that reported lower levels of trust. Similarly, with Architects/Engineers, 71% of GCs reported a higher level of trust, with 29% reporting a lower level of trust with the stakeholders.
The research found that for General Contractors, trust is consistent for all groups – nearly three-quarters of General Contractors report higher levels of trust for Owners, Architects/Engineers, and Specialty Contractors. This is likely because there is a clear line of communication with all stakeholders. Additionally, since the GC is bringing all of the relevant parties together to do the work, they need to trust that their partners will follow through on their commitments.
A Senior Superintendent from the US said it best:
“I always compare my job to a music conductor. I don’t do anything. I don’t play anything. They do all of it. I just bring them together, so that they can accomplish the same thing.”
While General Contractors had high and consistent trust for all partners on the jobsite, this is not the case for all, especially for Specialty Contractors. Where General Contractors bring everyone together to complete the work, the Specialty Contractors are the ones completing the tasks and making up the majority of labor on the jobsite. This means if there is rework or delays, Specialty Contractor crews spend time re-doing work they already did or waiting around before they can complete their work. This is extremely inefficient and costly for the Specialty Contractor.
Additionally, Specialty Contractors are often the ones identifying issues, but based on the contract, the farthest removed from the solution. Questions are routed up the chain from field to GC to Architect to Engineer and then back the same way. For some, it may feel like a game of telephone. For many, this is not a collaborative and transparent way to work.
Similar to GCs, the mapping below represents how Specialty Contractors classified trust amongst their peers on the jobsite.
The research found that nearly three-quarters of Specialty Contractors reported higher trust with General Contractors, whom they have more frequent touchpoints and opportunities to collaborate.
However, this high trust was not consistent across the jobsite. Forty percent of Specialty Contractors reported a low degree of trust with Architects/Engineers. One explanation for this drop in trust could be because design changes are distributed by the Architects/Engineers, regardless of who requested or issued the changes. These changes impact the ones doing the majority of the work, the Specialty Contactors the most. Often, there is limited transparency around changes, and Specialty Contractors are tasked to do the work, without explanation into why.
For many, trust and transparency go hand in hand. As one Canadian Project Manager stated: “The biggest builder of trust on the jobsite is transparency.”
Considering many Specialty Contractors reported lower levels of trust for Architects and Engineers, is the reverse true?
From Design to Construction, Architects and Engineers work closely with the Owner to bring their vision to life. Additionally, for Architects and Engineers, General Contractors are the conduit to the field. They work closely with the GC to ensure that the project is being built to the correct quality and design.
Similar to GCs, Architects and Engineers had high levels of trust for all groups on the jobsite. For example, with General Contractors, 77% of Architects and Engineers reported higher levels of trust compared to 23% of Architects and Engineers that reported lower levels of trust.
It may come as no surprise that 80% of Architects/Engineers reported high levels of trust with Owners. This high trust is likely a combination of the close work during the design phase, repeat business or projects, and the direct contractual relationship between the Architects and Owners.
As mentioned above, firms with high trust had greater levels of repeat business. Repeat business is a flywheel. The more work you do, the more trust you build, and the more trust you have, the higher likelihood of future work.
A Chief Specialist in New Zealand explained the benefits of repeat business:
“Repeat work builds trust because you know that when someone says they’re going to do something, they will. As a result, collaboration is easier.”
Last, but certainly not least, Owners. As the saying goes, “He who holds the purse holds the power.” An Owner has a lot of power but is often the farthest removed from the individual project. As a result, Owners must trust that all parties are working efficiently to create a quality structure.
Similar to Architects and Engineers, Owners had high levels of trust for all groups on the jobsite. For example, with General Contractors, 76% of Owners reported higher levels of trust, and only 24% of Owners reported lower levels of trust with these stakeholders.
Amongst all groups, Owners show the highest levels of trust across the board. Many Owners have strong and established relationships with Architects and Engineers and ultimately choose which stakeholders are hired for the project – both of which likely contribute to the high levels of trust.
As mentioned previously, Owners are often the farthest removed from the daily activities but the most invested in the overall project outcome. As a result, they have to trust that all parties are working together to complete the structure. Overall, Owners showed very high trust across the board.
As a Senior Project Manager explained, “Trust is essential. Without it you don’t go into business with companies.”
Mapping Trust Across the Jobsite
Putting all of this together, you get a view of trust across the jobsite. While there are areas where the majority have high trust for the group (e.g., 73% of GCs, Owners, Architects/Engineers have higher levels of trust for Specialty Contractors), it is clear that trust is not equal for all groups.
Additionally, there are areas of “mismatched” trust, where one group trusts another, but the trust is not reciprocated. One example is the relationship between Specialty Contractors and Architects/Engineers. Nearly three-quarters of Architects/Engineers reported a high degree of trust for Specialty Contractors. However, only 60% of Specialty Contractors reported a high level of trust for Architects/Engineers.
One potential driver for this mismatch is the level of direct collaboration between the groups. Specialty Contractors are only working onsite, collaborating closely with both the General Contractor and other Specialty Contractors. Most of their interactions with the Architect/Engineers is managed by the General Contractor through formal processes like inspections, RFIs, and change orders. This gives the Specialty Contractor little time to get to know and develop a relationship with the Architect/Engineers. Additionally, most of those formal processes, such as a change order, are initiated when there is an issue, or something goes awry. As a result, the positive touchpoints between these groups are infrequent at best.
While there are pockets of trust across the jobsite, the research found ways to improve trust both internally and between external parties. For the jobsite, this means focusing on two things:
1. Minimize uncertainty: Trust is all about certainty. Conditions on the jobsite are often continually changing. It’s critical to find ways to minimize the cause of uncertainty. In most cases, this means better communication. Eliminating or minimizing uncertainty also means being clear about expectations. To achieve this:
- Be transparent. As much as possible, share with stakeholders how the project is doing, what others are working on.
- Ensure roles and responsibilities are well defined and known. Make sure all stakeholders have agreed to and aligned on their respective scope of work. Additionally, make sure there are no gaps or overlaps that may cause confusion.
- Communicate clearly, directly, and simply. Make requests easy to understand and explicit. Subject lines in an email, for example, should be simple and limited to a single issue. Complex issues or requests should be discussed in person when possible.
- Encourage input from others and create opportunities for sharing suggestions. Trust is increased when stakeholders feel free to share ideas that they know will be considered seriously. Additionally, the collective brain is better than the individual brain. If a problem arises, bring together all stakeholders involved to work to find a solution collectively.
- Be consistent in your processes (e.g., meetings, project planning). Routine and standard operating procedures further eliminates uncertainty.
2. Simplify how teams collaborate. Whatever the levels of trust, most businesses and projects can achieve significant benefits from simplifying project team collaboration.
- Make communication easy and transparent. This is especially true for document sharing and editing. Have a single source for all project data and information that can be easily accessed by all team members.
- Be solutions-focused, not blame focused. This will increase the likelihood that team members will bring attention to projects before they escalate.
- Develop informal personal contracts between team members. These are not signed and written legal contracts, but rather agreements about how things will be done. For example, what is the communication plan for team members?
Want to learn more? Download the full report: