by Christian Masotti Christian Masotti

People treatment as a continuous improvement strategy in construction environments

According to, the demand for construction is growing much faster than the number of skilled workers, and the industry is facing a skills shortage like never before. Specifically, The Bureau of Labour Statistics suggests that overall employment of construction labourers and helpers is projected to grow five per cent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations. If there is work, and that work pays reasonably well, why don’t people want to work in the industry? Why, according to Gallup, are only 33 per cent of your employees fully engaged? And why, according to Digital Builder, is there a 21.4 percent industry-wide construction employee turnover rate?

There are a few possible explanations, and not surprisingly, they all relate to civility.

Rough workplace culture

In traditional construction environments, you need to show you are not “weak.” Fitting in often requires being “rough,” which might include engaging in what many perceive as uncivil behaviours, including:

  • Swearing
  • Calling people names
  • Ignoring people
  • Criticizing people in public
  • Walking away when people are talking to you
  • Shouting
  • Demonstrating physical strength, e.g., punching a wall, stomping, making a fist
  • Toughing it out when you experience small injuries
  • Crowding others, e.g., getting into their personal space
  • Overtalking and/or interrupting
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Gesturing rudely, e.g., giving the finger
  • Shutting people down verbally
  • Speaking in a harsh tone
  • Taking a staunch stance, e.g., wide postures
  • Failing to acknowledge others
  • Avoiding showing softness, e.g., formal thank you, hugging, too much smiling
  • Avoiding apologizing
  • And generally, just not being “nice”

Some of this behaviour might be understood as normal or acceptable by those who live in these organizations, but technically, these are uncivil behaviours that, when left unaddressed, collectively create a toxic work culture.

Construction worker stereotypes

In an article, “Three Myths of Construction Workers: ‘Why we are not Second-Class Citizens,’” Forrest Sim outlines three common myths about construction workers.

Construction workers are all gross and shout catcalls
Construction workers are just dumb brutes who only know how to swing a hammer
Construction sites are dirty and dangerous

Clearly, labeling is uncivil. That these stereotypes prevail potentially results in self-fulfilling prophecy – that is, some construction workers lower their behaviour standards because they believe they are perceived negatively anyway. And employers, site supervisors, clients and the public potentially treat workers badly because they believe the stereotypes. In either case, this labeling and categorizing is hugely detrimental and certainly impacts how people working in the industry are treated.

Survival of the fittest mindset

As a result of a “be strong to survive” mindset, construction sites are often not perceived as great places to work. Sure, noise, safety concerns, time constraints, stress, the union aspects, etc. may contribute to what can be described as a negative workplace culture, but the hard truth is that for the most part, the lack of niceness is due to leadership (including supervisors and managers) and their respective attitudes toward what constitutes acceptable “people treatment.”

In her public presentations, Colleen Munroe, the president of Hugh Munroe Construction Ltd., has spoken about an “old boys club” mentality that still exists in the construction industry. One example of this mentality is the belief that employees should do their job because that is what they are paid for – in other words, they do not need to like it! This attitude impacts how people are treated on the job.

“People treatment” is a term coined by Lewena Bayer, the CEO of Civility Experts Inc. Bayer refers to an overall attitude about what constitutes a fair and good way of interacting with people. People treatment includes how you speak, nonverbal gestures, the extent to which you are empathetic and how you define honesty and integrity. An individual’s idea of positive people treatment can vary from one context to another.

In order to navigate the interpersonal dynamics of both the workplace and the world at large, each of us – but especially those of us in leadership positions – need to be able to both convey positive people treatment and read cues and behaviours of others so that we can encourage civility in interactions. The recommendation for construction organizations, where command-and-control management style and the often-associated negative verbal and nonverbal behaviours might be deeply ingrained, is to focus on social intelligence training. In a very short time, this strategic training can build skills such that there is immediate, measurable impact to the workplace culture – specifically to the overall “tone” of communications.

People treatment includes how you speak, nonverbal gestures, the extent to which you are empathetic and how you define honesty and integrity. An individual’s idea of positive people treatment can vary from one context to another.

According to Civility Experts Inc., “social intelligence” is the ability to read and effectively interpret verbal, nonverbal, tonal and contextual cues. Social intelligence includes social radar (being present and paying attention), social style (ability to adapt your approach to interaction) and social rules (knowledge of the unwritten and written guidelines that vary with context).

Social intelligence teaches people the following skills that can offset communication skills gaps, enable people who cannot problem-solve on their own to ask questions and builds trust such that people can collaborate more effectively.

Social intelligence training enables people to:

  • Read verbal, nonverbal, contextual and situational cues to interpret the mood, motivation and needs of others
  • Exhibit nonverbal, verbal and situational cues appropriately
  • Be present, e.g., pay attention to what is going on around them
  • Recognize when gestures, language, behaviour or approach is grounded in culture, generation or gender nuances
  • Pick up on very subtle changes in tone and behaviour, e.g., to sense when a mood shifts
  • Learn unwritten rules, e.g., unspoken and unwritten expectations for how to live in a certain environment, e.g., aspects of workplace culture
  • Learn written and known rules, e.g., codes of conduct, regulation, etc.
  • Become self-aware, e.g., of one’s own social style
  • Adapt one’s social style to what is appropriate or required for a certain situation
  • Adapt to change quickly, e.g., due to ability to shift social gears when necessary
  • Respond to events calmly, e.g., due to ability to anticipate and/or monitor
  • Recognize appropriate time to ask questions
  • See aspects of personality that are otherwise unnoticed
  • Send positive first impression
  • Make others feel at ease
  • Build trust, e.g., due to paying attention
  • Be a better listener
  • Be cordial, e.g., approachable
  • Show humility, e.g., recognize when help is needed
  • Read emotions, e.g., be empathetic when needed
  • When leaders in construction have high

social intelligence combined with some experience interacting with others in the workplace context – for example, they know the general expectations for the workplace culture, they know the industry jargon, have some knowledge of the terms and processes, etc. – they can apply their social intelligence in a way that fosters social acuity.

Indicators of social acuity

Leaders need to have high “social acuity” – that is they need to have a keen social sense. They must be consistently accurate and timely in their perceptions and assessments of social settings. They need to know how to:

  • Read contextual cues
  • Be attentive to the nuances of workplace culture
  • Navigate politics in union environments
  • Identify who will be an ally and who will be a challenge
  • Build trust
  • Repair broken trust
  • Consider contextual aspects when timing everything from greetings to feedback to workplace coaching and performance reviews
  • Communicate in a way that leaves everyone involved in the interaction feeling valued
  • Acknowledge differences that make a difference, e.g., related to gender, culture, generation
  • Give timely and effective feedback
  • Monitor and manage nonverbal cues to boost credibility and perceived competence
  • Adapt supervisory approach and style to meet the needs of individual workers
  • Apply adult learning principles
  • Maintain credibility as a leader but still be perceived as approachable by the production team

One of the outcomes of high social acuity is a recognition that everyone in an organization has value. But we must be careful not to attach only monetary value to individuals. In Doing Virtuous Business, Theodore Roosevelt Malloch writes, “Every person has a fingerprint of personality and potential and desire to contribute. When we define people solely in economic terms, our motivational and incentive schemes tend to become mechanical and manipulative. We try to define a system that will idiot-proof the process, which can, in turn, make people feel like idiots.”

From a civility perspective, each individual has value as a human being. As such, every individual is deserving of respect just because they are human and on the planet. (Trust, however, is something that must be earned and not every person is deserving of trust.) In terms of workplace value, individuals at all levels should be acknowledged for:

  • Potential (amount of potential might vary)
  • Intelligence (nature of intelligence might vary)
  • Education (type and extent of education might vary)
  • Social contribution (nature and volume of social contribution might vary)
  • Experience (time on the job and type of experience might vary)
  • Resilience (extent of resilience might vary)

All these elements are aspects of value, but it is each individual’s understanding of civility and his/her choosing civility that enables us to recognize and appreciate these aspects of value. Without civility, and without respect, people often fail to see the value of others. As such, it is important to also recognize what Bayer describes as the civility quotient.

  • Civility commitment + civility competency (both might vary) = Civility quotient

The idea is that when everyone in a workplace understands that everyone has value, overall civility and positive people treatment in the organization improves. 

With more than 20 years in the workforce, Christian Masotti is a continuous learner who believes that the ability to combine his technical skills – including Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen – with social intelligence and cultural competence have been the key to his success. In addition to a stint with the Canadian Football League as a professional athlete, Masotti has worked for Ford, Toyota, Chrysler, ArcelorMittal and MLSE, and is now a three-time published author who also leads the Civility Experts Inc. Worldwide Lean on Civility Consulting team.

“Many people perceive having respect, exhibiting kindness and treating people well as a sign of weakness – but this is a costly mistake.” – Christian Masotti

This article includes excerpts from Lean on Civility, Masotti & Bayer, 2020.