Start small, end big

Oct 07, 2019

The industry is in desperate need of future leaders who know how to talk with, and understand, their people.

I recently conducted a survey of 30 owners in the AEC industry to learn about their biggest leadership challenges. The number one issue is finding leaders who have the inclination or potential to be more in tune with their colleagues. “I’ve got people who are good engineers, but they don’t have the emotional intelligence to inspire and influence people to follow them,” says one executive.

The industry is in desperate need of future leaders not to engineer a solution to a technical problem, but to be aware of what’s going on with their own emotions, to manage their emotions, to read people, and to have the sense of how to talk to someone. The industry could use leaders who know when to listen and be empathetic like a therapist, and when to be as direct and as clear as a drill sergeant. And to know how to do it well so they don’t lose people but gain their admiration and trust. But can people really change? I’ve coached executives who were technically brilliant but emotionally clueless. I’ve had tremendous success at transformation. The key is to start ridiculously small.

The foundation of emotional intelligence is empathy, or the ability to put yourself in the place of someone else to better understand their thoughts and feelings. If we expand our view to include how others may perceive a situation, we can improve the outcome of an interaction. We move from a self-centered approach to an other-centered approach. When we consider how others feel and think about a situation and adapt our approach to include them, they feel acknowledged and respected, have a sense of ownership, work harder and longer, and produce better work. There’s no need to micro-manage for results, when people are engaged and working to their full potential. If the connection between empathy and output is so strong, why is it so hard for people to embrace?

One of the obstacles to greater empathy in the workplace is that some people draw a strong line between their professional and personal lives. Those who live on the left side of the brain tend to be more guarded and less open about their feelings, so it’s difficult for them to hear someone else express theirs. I worked with an engineer who managed a small team, who was very clear about his boundaries. “This is a place of work. I’m not comfortable with getting into emotional issues at work.” I asked him if it was a matter of being comfortable sharing his feelings. “With my wife and buddies, but not at work.”

As a consequence, he appeared closed down and uncaring. People didn’t come to him with their problems. On one hand, it worked pretty well: If you don’t appear to care, people won’t even bother sharing how they feel and you’ll get more work done and get home on time! If you’re a patient listener and let people talk, there’s the potential it can monopolize your time. And if you’re really empathetic, a line can form outside your door. But when people didn’t come to him with project problems, he realized he was also out of the loop when it mattered. He wasn’t sure how to strike a balance between caring and not caring. He felt damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

I then gave him an assignment that may seem overly simplistic, but surprisingly effective: Start each day at work by asking an innocuous question like, “How was your weekend?” This was not a big ask and so he did it. What he found over the course of five months was that by asking about little things that weren’t too personal, things shifted for him. People started to see him as more approachable. They started to bring him in on issues they were having about real work on their projects. As he invested more time talking to people, they became more interesting to him. What started as an academic exercise became part of his daily routine of connecting with people in a way that he hadn’t imagined. He learned, “It’s not just asking once and checking the box but taking a genuine interest in their lives.”

Once he came to know someone’s story, he would ask about updates that showed he cared enough to remember the details of their last conversation – seeing how their son’s first job was going, if they had finished a wood puzzle they were making for a granddaughter, or if the CAT scan had revealed anymore cancer in their wife. “I’m not a big pet person, but for some people it’s their world. Just because it’s not important to me, doesn’t mean it’s not really important to other people,” he says. When people feel more connected on a personal level, working together is easier and smoother. “I’ve learned that by taking time to talk about personal things, they feel like a person rather than a number.”

He had previously drawn a hard line between work and personal life. “I used to think of employees as resources. I valued them for how much they could produce and the quality of their plans,” he says. That strategy served him as a manager but not as an effective leader. So, what’s the big insight into building emotionally intelligent leaders? Start small.

Leo MacLeod is a leadership coach in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.