Why Trust Breaks Down in Construction (And How to Fix It)

March 19, 2021 Eric Thomas

Talk to any relationship expert and they’ll tell you the foundation of a healthy relationship is trust. The same truth applies to business relationships. Trust is an integral part of working with others, whether it’s internally or externally.

It’s also a key part of construction, and leading firms are taking steps to build trust internally and external. Traditionally, relationships in construction may lean more on the adversarial side than cooperative. Contracts rule the industry and the most efficient way to succeed has often been characterized as maximizing gains at the expense of other partners. 

By developing a new mindset where collaboration and communication come first, contractors, owners, and subcontractors can create long-lasting, successful business relationships centered on trust. We’ll explore the major categories of trust and breakdown their root causes and remedies below. 

Trust: At the Internal and External Level

Within professional relationships, there is organizational trust and project trust. Organizational trust is internal, existing between individuals within an organization. That may be between coworkers or employees and managers. The most successful organizations have strong levels of internal trust, based on honesty, communication, and autonomy. Internal trust must exist before external trust or project trust can be achieved. 

Project trust exists at an external level. This level of trust is between two or more external organizations. Once internal trust has been established, organizations can work effectively with other high-performing organizations to build and sustain project trust. 

Why Does Trust Break Down in Construction?

As difficult as it can be to establish trust, it doesn’t take long for it to break down. The erosion of trust typically comes down to the following issues. 

Communication Breakdown

Developing and maintaining trust involves a great deal of communication. A communication breakdown may be as simple as failing to follow through or follow up. It could also be more complex; some contractors may feel as if they’re not being heard so they decide to do things without involving other parties. To overcome this issue, establish expectations for communication, hold regular check-ins, and emphasize the value of transparency. If people feel like they can share concerns or mistakes without being penalized, they’ll be more likely to bring issues up before they’ve had a chance to fester. 

Mismatched Expectations

Expectations fall into a similar category as communications. Each party may assume that the other parties have the same expectations for the project. Or maybe they believe their expectations are already well-known. This mindset becomes an issue when there’s a misalignment of expectations. 

To remedy this problem, establish expectations from the start. Each party should know their responsibilities for the project, any dependencies, and their contribution to the greater goal of the project. 

Misunderstood Contract/Priority

Each party likely has different perceived priorities for the project. It’s easy to lose sight of the larger goal when you are focused on the tasks involved in your portion of the project. This problem often occurs when there’s a lack of training on roles and responsibilities. Reviewing the different types of construction contracts can help you select the best one for your project and establish the right priorities from the start. 

Incentive Structures

In examining priorities, you may find that a lack of incentives or misaligned incentives can cause trust to break down. People sometimes disregard commitments and responsibilities when they don’t align with their needs or current ways of working. To address this problem, involve participants in the planning and organizing of trainings to ensure they are convenient. 

Culture Issues

Finally, we have one of the more difficult problems to overcome: cultural issues. Contractors, owners, and subcontractors will have different priorities and time-sensitive matters at hand. These issues may become more pressing than the project needs. Each organization brings its own values to the project. One organization may prioritize transparency while another sees efficiency as the most important goal. Aligning on project values and expectations from the beginning can help resolve this problem. Establishing regular communication can also open avenues to discuss challenges openly. 

The Five Whys Methodology is a useful tool for identifying the root cause of a breakdown in trust. This Lean technique is based on Sakichi Toyoda’s belief that “by repeating ‘why’ five times, the nature of the problem as well as the solution becomes clear.” By starting with the problem at hand, you can dig down to its root cause through the examination of the five levels that lead you there. 

Repair and Rebuild: Construction Trust Breakdowns

There’s no denying that trust matters to professional relationships and that the erosion of trust can derail even the most artfully planned projects. Reestablishing trust is a greater challenge than building it from the ground up, but it can be done. In the Breaking Down the Breakdowns: Trust in Construction ebook, we share ways to build back internal and project trust for better business results. Download it now to learn how to create a culture of trust in your organization. 

Download NOW

On a recent episode of our Digital Builder podcast, we also recently spoke to thought leaders about how construction firms can prioritize trust at their companies. Listen to the full episode here

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