How to Improve the Project Manager-Superintendent Relationship

When people and priorities clash, focus on the shared vision.

Project managers and superintendents both play vitally important roles on construction projects. But it’s no secret that the humans in these roles sometimes butt heads.

Robert Muir believes it has to do with differences in backgrounds and sometimes, lack of communication. Muir is the CEM coordinator and professor of practice at the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. He has also worked as a project manager.

When he was deciding what to name his feisty Terrier Yorkie mix, Sambo, he thought of his friend Sam Willis, who is a superintendent. The duo have a long history of working together.

“He’s a piece of work and cracks me up, but he’s a loyal and trusted friend.” At times, though, Muir admits “the relationship was strained because of the nature of the dynamic.

Superintendents often “grow up” in the business and climb the ranks from crafts like carpentry, whereas project managers tend to enter the workforce with degrees in engineering or construction. This, Muir said, creates differences in personalities and mindsets that can make things tricky.

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Muir’s advice? “Leave your ego at the door; then communication is more open and less defensive.”

Meeting face-to-face before work starts is vital to establishing a strong relationship, advised James Oldroyd, a professor of management and strategy at Brigham Young University. Skip the email or phone call and sit down with the person to find commonalities. Also look for potential conflicts that could arise, and brainstorm solutions, Oldroyd said. That way, you’ve already solved the problem if the predicted difficulties arise.

“These are skills just like engineering and finances,” Oldroyd said. “You have to be thoughtful about it; it doesn’t just happen naturally.”

Since a PM and super can sometimes have different priorities, it’s also important for them to establish a shared vision that’s developed, organized and communicated to everyone working on the project, advised Muir. That can happen with clear communication early in the process — like the face-to-face Oldroyd suggested.

“We are all working for the same objectives, we all want it to be successful,” Muir said.

Separately, project owners or managers above the PM and super can also help ease the tension between the two parties or unify them by offering both individual and shared incentives.

“People are myopic in view because they are focused on getting their jobs done and not worrying about what else is going on,” Oldroyd said. “You can give individual portions but also collective incentives so they care not only about their job but the other person’s career.” Incentives can include bonuses pegged to completing tasks and making deadlines, he added.

“At the end of the day, we are talking about increasing coordination between individuals who have a conflicting purpose,” Oldroyd said.

If during a conflict one party becomes belligerent, try to use logic, pointing back to that shared vision and explaining how you’re attempting to achieve it. If that fails, Oldroyd said, refocus the debate on something the other person cares about.

“Assume they also have things they need from another side,” Oldroyd said. “It’s refocusing them on the fact that if you don’t work together, nothing will happen.”

Emily Canal is a staff writer at Inc. Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe and Forbes.