Deakin researcher sets out to transform volatile building industry
1 February 2010
Deakin University's latest PhD graduate Peter Goldsmith literally is a relationship builder.
The former carpenter and social worker, who left school at 15 before gaining his first degree at 28, not only knows the ins and outs of building and construction but now his doctoral research will help leaders and managers in the often volatile building industry build better relationships with their project teams.
As organisations move towards flatter leaner structures, and workers are organised around project teams the research has implications for all managers and leaders seeking to encourage innovation in their organisation.
"The building industry has a traditionally adversarial culture because the nature of the business means there are many issues which create distrust," Dr Goldsmith explained.
"The industry is built contract – so, owners engage a construction company or contractor who says they can deliver by a certain date.
"Then for a variety of reasons that commitment turns out not to be true and trust is lost.
"Trust can also be lost because there are issues with low quality, or cost blow outs which flow into the supply chain and everyone fights with one another as they try to get their contracts lighter and leaner."
Dr Goldsmith said as a result of this distrust relationships in the building industry were purely contractual as they were built on what was called transactional trust.
"With this form of trust members of your team look at how you are behaving and whether or not your behaviour is consistent with what you are saying," he said.
"The problem for managers and leaders leading project teams in this instance is that you will get compliance, not necessarily commitment.
"So for example in my research one company's values was equality. When senior leaders instructed their team members to buy cheap airline tickets for work-related travel and did not do so themselves, this behaviour was perceived as being indicative of double standards.
"Their credibility among the team was lost and the members felt disillusioned."
Dr Goldsmith said in contrast teams working on the building site operated using relational trust – "we are in partnership – basically I trust that you are not going to get me killed".
"You will often see this scenario on a building site, several tonnes of payload swings effortlessly through the air being precisely delivered into a tight spot by a team of workers on the site.
"Each one trusts the other to get it right - one wrong move and someone could die or be badly injured," Dr Goldsmith explained.
"All of these teams on the construction site are doing different things, but they know they are responsible to each other for ensuring that the crane does not drop its load on them."
Dr Goldsmith's research found that this relational way of working could be harnessed when the teams perceived their leader's behaviour as being 'fair dinkum' or authentic.
"In these teams the leaders work with their members in a relational way, their behaviour is consistent with what they are saying, as a result members are prepared to innovate, try new ideas and go out on a limb for them and their team.
"It is the sort of energy and approach which can transform an organisation."
Dr Goldsmith said relational trust was fragile.
"Effectively the team invest their emotional security in you, if you behave in a way which goes against those values and beliefs trust implodes.
"Once it is gone it is very difficult to get it back. People may trust you transactionally, but they won't go any further."
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