Is there one soft skill that’s most important to construction firms? That question is like asking whether there’s only one optimum size of air-handling unit or asking whether only one concrete design mix works best. It all relates to specific situations and our ability to master the variables. But there’s one soft skill that, perhaps, is at the root of many other soft skills: empathy. 

Empathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings or concerns. Having worked on projects on five continents with team members of various skill levels and ethnic backgrounds, I have found one universal truth: When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place.

A powerful CEO once asked me, “Do you find it hard to motivate teams?” I answered, “No, motivating teams is easy. The challenge is to keep management from demotivating teams.”

Management may not recognize that its actions are often demotivating when they were intended to be positive. We’ve all said to someone or had someone say to us, “It’s not what you said—it’s how you said it,” trying to explain why someone was hurt or offended.

Empathy can be your biggest ally in resolving these problems. Empathy helps us to recognize how our staff is feeling and how we might schedule some half-days so that employees can address personal matters on a more flexible schedule. We might even use empathy to recognize that our workers’ families need some recognition for their sacrifice. That empty seat at the dinner table is also often an empty seat at a Little League baseball game or a school talent show.

You also can use empathy to help your clients and as a selling point to hire your company for their next project. What are their biggest concerns, and how can you help to alleviate them?

Clients will appreciate the fact that you have designed and installed an HVAC system or curtain wall that will decrease their operating costs. But add some common-sense empathy. You can also tell them that the isolation of vibrations will prevent their workers from being distracted by system noise. Tell them that reducing the number of pumps will decrease their need for spare parts and lower maintenance time and training needs. Clients want someone who understands their concerns and can help to find reasonable solutions. 

But how do you get your teams to be more empathetic? The cultural shift has to start from the top. Without a change in management behavior, the culture won’t change. A solid management strategy is important, but culture will eat strategy for breakfast every time. 

Start by observing your employees. What are their greatest challenges, and how can you help to alleviate them? Ask your project partners how you can help them get back on—or even ahead of—schedule. Ask owners about their greatest complaints regarding their facilities. Then, listen. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do is to stop and actually listen to what someone is saying—but doing so demonstrates real empathy. 

It helps us to understand how we can alleviate the fears and problems of those we work with. Often, we find we can alleviate those fears without spending additional money ourselves—we can add value without adding costs. Is there a better win-win than that? 

Empathy is the key that can unlock many doors, enabling your team to perform more proficiently and book more jobs at higher fees, for example. Who wouldn’t like to spend less and get paid more?