Construction Managers: Humble Leadership Is the New Name of the Game

Ditching the ego could be good for team growth and productivity.

Construction managers require a specific set of skills and even personality traits, including confidence. However, to be a better, more inspiring leader — and develop workers who are more engaged — you might add a dose of humility. That’s according to Dan Cable, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School and author of the recent book “Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.”

We asked Cable why a humble leadership style can serve a construction manager well.

“Leadership has changed,” Cable explained. “Top-down leadership doesn’t work anymore because things change too fast. To keep up with the speed of your competitors, you need employees to think like owners, to bring their best to work, to help you innovate. This doesn’t happen with old-school, control-based approach because it ramps up people’s fear — fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of humiliation.”

That fear, he said, “shuts down their positive emotions and stifles their drive to experiment and learn.”

Think your main job as a manager is to tell people what to do? Think again. “If you want people to bring their best to work, leaders need to remember that their key role is to serve employees as they explore and grow. With change coming so fast, firms become calcified and brittle if employees aren’t innovating and proactively trying new things.”

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How can you pave the way for these bottom-up innovations?

“Humble leadership involves listening to employees and learning along with them. And here’s the prize: By giving power away and by activating people’s potential, you find that they will bring forward unpredicted ideas and practices — better than what you could have made them do.”

Cable cited as an example a UK food delivery business whose employees were being treated like children by management. Every morning the drivers delivered milk and bread to more than a million customers. Many of them had worked there for 15 to 20 years. “There was not much love or respect between these employees and their managers. Their relationship was characterized by mutual distrust,” said Cable.

When the industry’s model was disrupted, the company needed to compete on customer service and innovation. “But the employees’ attitudes and behaviors were a massive barrier.”

One of the key areas for improvement was weekly debrief meetings between the depot managers and their delivery persons. For an uncomfortable 15 minutes each week, the managers went through a list of problems with a clipboard and pen. “This was not inspiring on any level, to either party,” said Cable.

After consultation with PwC and some training, they tried a new format. Managers were trained to ask drivers, “How can I help you deliver excellent service?” Cable noted, “There was huge skepticism at the beginning, as you can imagine. Slowly but surely, however, there was a shift in attitude. The managers started listening and treating the people making the deliveries as adults. The drivers, in turn, started coming up with great ideas for improving the service.”  

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How can a senior construction manager apply these learnings?

Cable advised, “As a leader, ask yourself this question: How do I serve employees as they use their strengths to serve customers, to experiment and to try new things, even though they may not always work out as planned?”

He continued, “Sit down with each employee and say, ‘I see my job as helping you do your job better. How can I help you do your job better?’”

It’s a huge shift in attitude for many managers. But unlocking your employees’ full potential and focusing on increasing engagement can not only benefit your bottom line, it can help you retain your top talent.



Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands. 

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