The costs of arguments and feuds on construction projects is significant, a recent study shows.

According to research published late last year by the Center for Construction Research and Training, 41 incidents of conflict on construction projects each cost, on average, about $11,000 and 161 hours of work time.

Those 41 incidents were part of a total of 86 conflicts that were analyzed. The 41 had enough details that the costs involved could be assessed.

The results of the research come from interviews with 74 construction superintendents, project managers, foremen, supervisors, journeymen and fifth-year apprentices across Michigan’s lower peninsula.

“The most interesting, to me, was not something new to me but more of a confirmation that interpersonal conflict, across industries, is often viewed internally as a personality or a people problem,” says Michigan State University Associate Professor Julie Brockman, who authored the study. But according to her study, “The real trigger events were more organizational and systems-oriented.”

“We often look to people as the problem," she adds, but her study's conclusion is consistent with what other researches have found.

Conflict Considered Normal

All study interviewees said interpersonal conflict is a given in the construction industry and arises from a variety of sources, including safety issues, redoing work, lack of equipment, scheduling, working conditions, trade jurisdiction and lack of communication.

The interviews also focused on resolutions to conflict, such as separating the conflicting parties and encouraging communication between them. Interviewees emphasized the importance of staying calm and listening, but many also discussed conflict prevention as a key aspect of managing tempers on the jobsite.

Similar research in all industries finds that managers deal with conflicts, on average, for 30% to 42% of their work time. Studies connect job-related interpersonal conflicts with occupational stress, reduced worker health, worker disability and workplace accidents.

According to Brockman’s study, the indirect costs of jobsite conflicts also can include loss of skilled employees, reduced quality of work, decreased motivation, increased absenteeism and higher employee turnover.

Snippets of Bad Days

The report has verbatim samples of interviews conducted for the research. Many of them have the earthy, familiar texture of the jobsite workday.

For example, one of the interviewees talked about a difference of opinion about how some holes were going to be punched in some steel. The interviewee didn't know how to operate a machine to punch the holes, so someone suggested burning them out with torches.

“Well, they torched them, and you torch a hole and you know what that looks like. ... And then, when they went to put it together, that made it sloppy and this person just blew up. You know, throwing the F-bomb. ... Well, this happened two or three times. And this is someone that's new.”

In some incidents, the conflict arose over perceptions of the quality of the work and the time involved.

One example involved painting. “He's driving the painter nuts by constantly being in here,” the interviewee stated. “Asking questions [as if] we don't know our job. We don't need him in here, telling us how to do our job.”