Why Emotional Intelligence Matters on the Job Site
As Nicholas Pickrel was growing up around the construction industry, he remembers how frequently employees would get yelled at—or even fired on the spot—when something went wrong. When he co-founded asphalt paving company Kingsway Services, Millersburg, Ohio, several years ago, Pickrel knew he wanted his business to operate differently.
The company, which aims to put its people first, has strived to cultivate a culture of emotional intelligence (EI) among its leadership and its crews. “In the dirt world, there’s often been a lack of EI,” Pickrel said. “There’s this tough-guy mentality where we don’t talk about feelings. But, it’s important to consider how your actions affect others, how they may be feeling and how you’re feeling.”
Last year, Kingsway invested in training from BuildWitt, Nashville, Tennessee, to help them achieve that goal. In addition to helping crews cultivate the hard skills needed to succeed on the construction job site, the training program heavily focuses on effective leadership—which includes EI training.
“We lose an incredible amount of people who join our industry. We have to recognize that getting them here is one thing; keeping them here is a whole other thing.” – Randy Blount
What is EI?
EI is frequently defined as the ability to recognize and regulate emotion, and to use social awareness in problem-solving. According to BuildWitt’s CFO Randy Blount, EI comes in two parts: “One is recognizing that people are emotional beings, and that plays a part in the way we communicate. Two, it’s the ability to separate yourself from those emotions when making decisions.”
Blount has recognized the importance of EI on the job site since well before joining BuildWitt three years ago. “When I was young, I’d hear the wisest people in our industry talk about how our industry is all about the people, that the equipment is the easy part,” he said. “I thought they said that because it was what you’re supposed to say.”
During his tenure leading Blount Contracting, growing the company from $3 million in annual revenue to $100 million, Blount quickly realized the importance of understanding and developing EI to better deal with employees, customers and project partners.
“In construction, almost everything you do is as a crew, even a simple patch job,” Blount said. “Recognizing that people are emotional beings and how that influences our interactions every day is the basis of good leadership.”
Blount said that BuildWitt’s initial desire with its training platform was to focus on some of the soft skills the company felt the industry needed to cultivate. For example, leadership, mental health and personal development. “We think those skills are just as important as the technology and safety skills,” Blount said. They also served BuildWitt’s mission, to ‘make the dirt world a better place.’
“We lose an incredible amount of people who join our industry,” Blount said. “We have to recognize that getting them here is one thing; keeping them here is a whole other thing. We need people who are better leaders to attract and retain people in our industry.”
However, BuildWitt recognized that it was the hard skills that brought companies to their training course, “so we started with equipment and sprinkled in leadership lessons and mental health advice—sort of like putting out a salt lick to draw in wildlife.”
And yet, it was the leadership and personal development training that most appealed to the Kingsway crew. “Recruiting employees is a huge challenge, but we also have to learn how to retain the guys we train,” Pickrel said, adding that operating with EI is a huge part of employee retention. “This stuff sounds wishy-washy, but people make decisions based on emotions more than logic, so it’s very important.”
For those who are new to the concept of EI, here are four common scenarios on a construction job site to illustrate how Blount and Pickrel approach these events with greater EI.
BuildWitt’s training platform includes more than 1400 lessons on topics ranging from leadership and EI to equipment skills and safety best practices. The training can be done in groups or individually, in large chunks of time or as microlearning modules, and companies can select certain videos for certain crews, outline a learning plan based on hire date, or deliver videos at random.
“One of our top methods of training is delivering micro lessons three minutes or shorter for the crew to watch before the daily huddle,” Blount said. “Then, the crew goes around and shares what they learned during the huddle.” By teaching what they’ve just learned, not only is that a refresher course for crew members who may not have yet encountered that tip on the platform, but it also improves the retention of the crewmember teaching the lesson and those hearing it for a second or third time.
When Mistakes Happen
Imagine you’re on a paving job and the roller operator lets his roller sit still on the newly finished mat before breakdown rolling is complete. “We know that creates a dip in the mat,” Blount said.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to call that person out, saying something like, ‘Hey stupid, I can’t believe you did that!’” Blount said. “How do you expect them to respond to that? That conversation is not going to go well.”
“So often, EI manifests itself in interpersonal communication gone wrong. For example, labeling phrases like ‘You’re dumb,’ or, ‘That was stupid’,” he said. Instead, he recommends avoiding labels and opting for a feelings-based approach. In the above example, Blount would opt for a more constructive reply, such as, “I’m frustrated because I thought you understood doing that would damage the mat. Let’s figure out why it happened and how we can change it for the future.”
Blount’s approach relies on three types of questions. First, searching questions that help him understand why the person made a certain decision. For example: Why did you park the roller on the mat? Next, analyzing questions to establish context. For example: Did you know what parking the roller on the mat does to it? And last, questions that help the employee apply the new lesson he’s learned. For example: When you take a bathroom break tomorrow, what’s your plan going to be to avoid making the mistake of parking on the hot part of the mat?
“It’s unlikely the roller operator thought to himself, ‘I want to suck at work today’,” Blount said. “Most of us want to be good at what we do. We need to recognize that intention when we start that conversation. It’s very unlikely that a person made a mistake because they wanted to make a mistake. Usually it’s because they weren’t trained on it, or they didn’t understand the ‘why’ behind it.”
A common scenario Blount sees on the job site is younger workers making mistakes that surprise the older workers. “The older workers forget how they came to the conclusion that something needs to be done a certain way, which is usually because of the mistakes they’ve made over the years,” he said. “They’ve done that same thing 10,000 times and over the 10,000 times they’ve done it, they’ve come to know the best way. But they don’t communicate the ‘why’ when they’re training the new guy.”
“Usually that young person is looking for a way to do the job faster, easier, with less pain,” Blount said. “These are all good desires, but they may not realize Bob the foreman has already tried every approach they’re going to try, and there’s a reason Bob wants them to do it a certain way. Leaders need to recognize the reason we have our perspective is because we have made mistakes in the past.”
This is the strategy Kingsway has chosen to employ within its crews. “We see mistakes as lessons we’ve paid for,” Pickrel said. “Why not take advantage of them and see them as an investment into that person who more than likely isn’t going to do that again.”
Early on in Kingsway, there was an employee who refused to take a drug test. “Our policy was to let him go, which we did, but we didn’t feel good about that,” Pickrel said. “Maybe we were his last hope. Knowing what we know now, I’d approach that situation differently. I’d offer him a different job if he agreed to a program to get clean and get him back to where he was after he finishes the program and gets clean. I would have offered him a route out of the situation he was in, a route that allowed him to stay if he wanted to stay and to get better.”
When a Fellow Crew Member Seems ‘Off’
Pickrel defines EI as understanding oneself and those around you. “It’s not just knowing my own emotional state, but also being able to recognize the emotional state of my coworkers,” he said.
For example, if a person is usually chatty and cracking jokes and goes quiet one day, he and his leadership team want to know about it. “Maybe they’re up taking care of someone until 1 a.m. or they’re stressed and they can’t sleep, maybe something is going on with their family,” Pickrel said.
This mentality, he added, starts with leadership. “If leadership starts learning about EI and implementing these strategies, that will trickle down,” he said. “The first time you say, ‘If you see anything off, I want to know about it’, maybe no one says anything. But if you address it two, three, four times, it starts to catch on.”
Blount also stresses the importance of EI among leadership. “We as leaders in industry need to demonstrate behavior we’re expecting from people,” he said. For example, he continued, if a supervisor is going through a personal issue, Blount would hope that they’d mention it in the morning huddle, in whatever level of detail they feel comfortable. “That could help prevent a potential workmanship issue or safety incident because the crew knows to look out for him a bit more than usual that day. We’re used to having spotters on equipment, but sometimes we also need an emotional spotter on bad days.”
Once leadership effectively exhibited EI, Pickrel said it grew to become a part of Kingsway’s culture. “We recently had a crew member come to us who was worried about one of his coworkers,” Pickrel said. “He said he didn’t think he was in the right headspace for the job site and wasn’t acting like himself. We ended up giving that crew a day off, because it’s not safe to send them out there if someone’s head isn’t in the game. What if he steps out into the road because his mind’s on something else? That day off could have saved someone’s life. And no job is more important than anyone’s wellbeing.”
In another example, one of Kingsway’s employees’ friends was diagnosed with cancer, and the employee was often taking care of their children. “We sat everyone down and explained the situation and told everyone that if he needs extra help, we need to give it to him. If he needs to take off, we need to cover it. If he needs to leave early, we need to do what we can to make that happen.”
Although Pickrel and the leadership team want to know when their employees are struggling, they make it clear that employees don’t need to tell them everything and that they’ll handle the situation as the employee wishes.
“Some people want to throw themselves into their work to deal with their emotions, other people need some time off,” he said. One bit of advice? “If someone says they’re not in the right headspace, asks for the day off, can I go home, and you say no, that erodes trust. If you say yes and pay them for the day, that creates trust.”
Pickrel said EI may be an important tool in suicide prevention. “How many stories have we heard about someone who was ready to take their life and chose not to because one person gave them a call, asked how they were doing, said they’d pray for them,” he said. “If you aren’t aware of how your actions make others feel, you’re not going to notice those small things. If you’re not able to notice someone’s not acting the way they usually do, you’re not going to check on them. We have to pay attention to what’s happening in our teams’ lives.”
When Crew Members Don’t Get Along
Blount said EI can also be a valuable tool to resolve conflict within the crew. For example, when a young operator came up to Blount on a job site to express some trouble he’d been having with his foreman, whom he thought had been extra hard on him, Blount helped him strategize a constructive conversation to resolve the conflict.
“We walked through what that conversation might look like and some productive questions he might ask,” Blount said. For example, instead of asking the foreman, “Why are you such a jerk to me?” and putting him on the defensive, the operator could take radical ownership of the situation and express his desire to improve.
Ultimately, the operator expressed his feelings and his desire to improve, asking the foreman what two or three things he most needed to improve and how he could know in the next 90 days that his improvements have been noticed and made a difference.
Overall, employees’ responses to Kingsway’s EI initiative have been positive. “Of course, they joke about the feelings stuff, but I know they appreciate knowing we’re looking out for them and they’re looking out for each other,” Pickrel said. “I think part of [our success with EI] is that we [the leadership team] don’t take it overly seriously.” For example, at the start of the 2023 paving season, Kingsway devoted a week to training, ranging from safety and best practices to addiction prevention. They also had their entire crew take a DISC personality test. “Everyone sort of joked about each others’ results a bit,” he said, even those in leadership positions, but ultimately it was a positive experience. “It was a breath of fresh air, not only in understanding ourselves but also with each other.”
When Jokes Go Too Far
One of the challenges to implementing a more emotionally intelligent approach on the job site is a fear that it might change the culture of the crew. “There’s usually this fun banter on a lot of construction crews,” Blount said. “And usually it’s fun to pick on each other a bit, but somebody eventually crosses the line and feelings get hurt.”
This usually happens when someone tries to make a joke that turns out to offend a coworker. In Pickrel’s experience, the way conflicts often end when jokes go too far is with someone quitting. “Then, the company ends up making rules about not joking on the job site,” he said. “Knowing how to resolve the problem when joking goes too far is the key to keep that culture and camaraderie.”
Blount agrees: “If we want to keep that joking culture, we need to know how to have conversations to resolve this type of conflict.” For example, ‘That was hurtful and I don’t believe that was your intention.’
“If we don’t know how to have those conversations, I think that increases the risk that our industry starts creating rules around joking and fun,” he said. “Learning to have conversations to resolve conflict is how we can continue to have a fun industry that can joke around and everyone goes home in better condition when they come in—not just physically, but emotionally.”