How can empathy increase productivity on a Construction Project?

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Emotional Intelligence

Why is Empathy important in business and Construction specifically?


I have yet to see a project completed by just one person. Construction is one of the sectors of our economy that relies heavily on interpersonal communication as a fundamental skill. 


One of the four building blocks of Emotional Intelligence (in business) is Social Awareness, along with Organizational Awareness and Service.




Success in social interactions is a hallmark of Empathy and Emotional Intelligence in a broader sense, developing the ability to accurately assess other people and respond accordingly is the groundwork. 


Without empathy, sustaining relationships becomes incredibly difficult. People with high levels of Empathy generally have a number of strong relationships in all areas of their lives.


As we learn more about Emotional Intelligence (Self Awareness thus far and the others to come), we are able to focus on improving our own awareness and attitudes and those of our crews. 


To improve our relationships one must focus outward, to others— by paying careful attention to the other person instead of ourselves. Observing actions, checking judgments, biases and assumptions, and listening with hypersensitive ears. Most often our knee jerk assessment is an assumption or, worse, judgment based on our experience, not the intent of the individual standing in front of us. 


The origin of the word empathy dates back to the 1880s, when German psychologist Theodore Lipps coined the term “einfuhlung” (literally, “in-feeling”) to describe the emotional appreciation of another’s feelings. 


It has also been described as the subjective understanding of another’s emotional response to experiences while maintaining some degree of emotional detachment. (Zinn W 1999). The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding, intellectually, what they are going through. This does not necessarily mean that you act or have an emotional response to that understanding. It also acknowledges that you don’t assume you know exactly what they are experiencing. Your own life experiences will naturally morph your first wave of empathy. You must be aware enough to put it through a screening process. 


Sympathy, in contrast, is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships of another encounter. Compared to Empathy, which is more analytical in nature, sympathy engages an emotional response and is reactive in nature.


And Empathy is not Sympathy, although they can be related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of another, sympathy is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.



Empathy is a learned skill that can be used to try to communicate and understand another’s experience or feelings (Halpern J 2003). Part of that understanding is to recognize the feelings, along with the causes and effect those feelings can have on the individual, without being pulled into the experience. (Keen S 2007) Removing the need to place judgment or evaluation on the feeling, experience, and the result becomes incredibly valuable in the field, especially when dealing with volatile situations.


In addition, a person can develop the skill of empathy and have the ability to use it depending on whether they feel responsible or connected to the other person (Ickes W 1997), taking an active interest in the concerns and problems of the other.


There is also the ability to gauge unspoken emotions, listening attentively to understand the other person’s point of view and infer a degree of understanding by the tone and non-verbal cues.


We all know empathy matters in our personal relationships, but how does it impact construction? 


Empathic individuals are natural collaborators, getting along well with those from very different backgrounds and cultures. They can express ideas in ways another person will understand, as well as perform more effectively on teams and in management roles. 


Empathy is the core competency for more complex relationship management skills including;

                        • influencing others
                        • creating a positive impact
                        • mentoring
                        • managing conflict
                        • teamwork


Project Managers and Foreman who are good at perspective-taking, a key part of empathy, do better at managing diverse teams by quickly inferring unspoken norms for behavior and the mental models of that culture. A recent white paper written by William Gentry and Golnaz Sadriesearch at the Center for Creative Leadership found that empathy predicts better job performance for managers and leaders. Their teams are more engaged, and employees with empathy perform more cohesively as a team.


When executives take a 360-degree assessment of their Emotional Intelligence Competencies that include rating themselves as well as having others rate them, those skilled in empathy rate themselves much as others do (while those with the largest self-other gap have blind spots about their own weaknesses).


This is due to the impact of another Emotional Intelligence Competency: Self-Awareness, a foundational component of EI. As we have previously written a sense of Emotional Self-Awareness brings a sense of how others see and perceive you, as well as what they think and feel about you. A lack of Emotional Self-Awareness also impairs empathy.


Not being able to recognize the feelings of others is a common and costly problem that lowers Emotional Intelligence. A foreman needs empathy and the ability to know intuitively, how others feel at any one time while managing employees, dealing with other trades, coordinating teams and schedules, and in virtually all the “people aspects” of getting the job done.


Research shows that our brains are hard-wired for empathy. As we get to know a person socially and professionally and understand what they are feeling and why it becomes easier to put ourselves in their shoes. That does not mean that we agree with everything they are thinking and feeling—just that we see things somewhat from their perspective. 


Empathy builds trust


Without trust, teams do not work collaboratively and the leader will have no power to influence them.


Here is a quick rundown of practical empathy building skills you can use onsite: 


  1. Try to look for similar/look for good: Always assume that people have the best of intentions. When they do have negative intentions, they will often be embarrassed into better behavior because others assume better of them.
  2. Observe and adopt a genuine attitude of curiosity and interest in the emotions of others. Study the behavior of others on site and try to reflect on what emotions someone is displaying. The more adept trainees become at determining what another person needs by watching and by asking the better position they are to understand, rationally, and assist. The more help provided, the better ally they will be and the more willing to reciprocate.
  3. Labeling emotions engage the rational mind, tying those labels to physical sensations does the same, but more importantly, it creates space to observe, instead of reacting without thought. 
  4. Avoid overgeneralizing. Common general phrases are; “He never…” or “She always….” “They are bad because…..” Reframe such thoughts so they reflect reality or the intent of the specific person and specific instance involved. 
  5. Actively listening means don’t talk when someone else is sharing. Most of us are not nearly as good at listening as we think we are. The true proof of listening ability is not how we rate ourselves, but how others rate how well we listen. Ask coworkers and family members how well you listen and be ready for a surprise.
  6. Be aware of the habit of selective listening. We all have specific feedback we choose to ignore and a habit of focusing on traits we want to own. Ignoring specific feedback because we don’t trust or like another person are all reasons we block assessments. Engaging in selective listening removes important feedback loops and data sources, along with running the risk of alienating a variety of people you may need or want to work with in the future. 
  7. Listen with your eyes and observe (not judge) nonverbal behavior carefully. One of the hallmarks of empathy is to accurately read nonverbal cues and communication, ie posture, facial expression, and tone of voice. Nonverbal communication is the nonlinguistic transmission of information through visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic channels.


Rules of Communication

Researchers ran two statistical studies and found the now famous—and famously misused—rule that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent). Smooth communication requires us to pay attention to more than just words.


The physical reactions that accompany words are automatic responses that are directly linked to emotions. When you attend to nonverbal cues, physiological changes that show up in facial muscles, posture, gestures, voice pitch, volume or word emphasis, flushing around the neck and face, and the breathing rate. All these signs are visible if we train ourselves to pay attention. Rather than focusing inward and rehearsing what we want to say, we should tune in to these cues so that we can better understand what is happening in front of us. When nonverbal cues indicate one thing and the words say something else, believe the nonverbals!


Shortcomings of Empathy

Though empathy is vital, the following excerpt from HRB’s article in 2018 advises keeping the following issues in mind. Since we can go overboard when implementing a new concept, it’s important to keep the following in mind as you’re doling out advice. 


Problem #1: It’s exhausting.

Like heavy-duty cognitive tasks, such as keeping multiple pieces of information in mind at once or avoiding distractions in a busy environment, empathy depletes our mental resources. So jobs that require constant empathy can lead to “compassion fatigue,” an acute inability to empathize that’s driven by stress, and burnout, a more gradual and chronic version of this phenomenon. This brings to mind the crusty aging foreman that’s seen and heard it all, with no tolerance for any shenanigans, he sees what he perceives instead of reality. Failing to recognize the limits of empathy can impair performance. Empathy can be exhausting in any setting or role in which it’s a primary aspect of the job.


Problem #2: It’s zero-sum.

Empathy doesn’t just drain energy and cognitive resources—it also depletes itself. The more empathy I devote to my spouse, the less I have left for my mother; the more I give to my mother, the less I can give my son. 


Consider this study: Researchers examined the trade-offs associated with empathic behaviors at work and at home by surveying 844 workers, including hairstylists, firefighters, and telecom professionals. People who reported workplace behaviors such as taking “time to listen to coworkers’ problems and worries” and helping “others who have heavy workloads” felt less capable of connecting with their families. They felt emotionally drained and burdened by work-related demands.


Sometimes the zero-sum problem leads to another type of trade-off: Empathy toward insiders—say, people on our teams or in our organizations—can limit our capacity to empathize with people outside our immediate circles. We naturally put more time and effort into understanding the needs of our close friends and colleagues. We simply find it easier to do, because we care more about them, to begin with. This uneven investment creates a gap that’s widened by our limited supply of empathy: As we use up most of what’s available on insiders, our bonds with them get stronger, while our desire to connect with outsiders wanes.


Problem #3: It can erode ethics.

Finally, empathy can cause lapses in ethical judgment. In many cases, the problem stems not from aggression toward outsiders but, rather, from extreme loyalty toward insiders. 


In making a focused effort to see and feel things the way people who are close to us do, we may take on their interests as our own. This can make us more willing to overlook transgressions.


Multiple studies in behavioral science and decision making show that people are more inclined to cheat when it serves another person. In various settings, with the benefits ranging from financial to reputational, people rationalize their dishonesty with altruism. It only gets worse when they empathize with another’s plight or feel the pain of someone who is treated unfairly: In those cases, they’re even more likely to lie, cheat, or steal to benefit that person.



Rein In Excessive Empathy

These three problems may seem intractable, but a number of things can mitigate them.


Corrective Action #1: Split up the work.

You might start by asking each employee to zero in on a certain set of stakeholders, rather than empathize with anyone and everyone. Some people can focus primarily on other trades-person and workers, for instance, and others on coworkers—think of it as creating task forces to meet different stakeholders’ needs. This makes the work of developing relationships and gathering perspectives less consuming for individuals. You’ll also accomplish more in the aggregate, by distributing “caring” responsibilities across your team or company. Although empathy is finite for any one person, it’s less bounded when managed across employees.


Corrective Action #2: Make it less of a sacrifice.

Our mindsets can either intensify or lessen our susceptibility to empathy overload. For example, we exacerbate the zero-sum problem when we assume that our own interests and others are fundamentally opposed. (This often happens in deal-making, when parties with different positions on an issue get stuck because they’re obsessed with the gap between them.) 


An adversarial mindset not only prevents us from understanding and responding to the other party but also makes us feel as though we’ve “lost” when we don’t get our way. We can avoid burnout by seeking integrative solutions that serve both sides’ interests.

Corrective Action #3: Give people breaks.

Understanding and responding to the needs, interests, and desires of other human beings involves some of the hardest work of all. Despite claims that empathy comes naturally, it takes arduous mental effort to get into another person’s mind—and then to respond with compassion rather than indifference.


We all know that people need periodic relief from technical and analytical work and from rote jobs like data entry. The same is true of empathy. Look for ways to give employees breaks. It’s not sufficient to encourage self-directed projects that also benefit the company (and often result in more work), as Google did with its 20% time policy. 


It may seem counter intuitive, but when people feel restored, they’re better able to perform the demanding tasks of figuring out and responding to what others need.

A version of this article appeared in the January–February 2016 issue (pp.68–73) of Harvard Business Review.



  • Vivian Mandala is the founder of CMC Network and has worked in NY Construction for over 20 years, most of which was as a Contractor. She is now a Construction Business Coach. In 2017 Vivian, along with a group of dedicated Contractors, CM’s, GCs and Developers, started CMC Workforce, a long term in depth construction training program. Vivian enjoys the personal connections she makes through her coaching and seeing the lasting changes that she sees her clients benefit from year after year.

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