The High Cost of Hot Crew Tempers


Heated arguments on construction sites aren't new, but those conflicts are costing companies far more than they probably realize, a novel new study suggests.

With the average cost of a single interpersonal conflict approaching $11,000, employers have a powerful reason to address an issue they may now shrug off, concludes The Cost of Interpersonal Conflict in Construction, a new study by a Michigan State University researcher for CPWR: The Center for Construction Research and Training.

If that tab sounds too high, consider the management time lost to refereeing conflicts; down time by the quarreling parties; absenteeism due to stress, illness or avoidance of co-workers; restructuring inefficiencies; lawyers and litigation; reduced productivity due to generally lower morale and higher tension; the cost of replacing those who quit or are fired in anger; and so on.

The Cost of Conflict

The new research is the first to quantify the financial cost of construction site conflict.

Study author Julie L. Brockman, Ph.D., a conflict resolution expert in MSU's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, interviewed 74 construction industry personnel using a protocol designed to elicit recalled conflict incidents. That uncovered 86 incidents, 41 of which Brockman analyzed in detail, looking at the time and costs affected.

The toll, in an industry that already squeaks by on a profit margin of 2 to 5 percent, was significant.

Julie Brockman
Michigan State University

Julie L. Brockman, Ph.D., calls unresolved construction conflict "one of the largest reducible productivity costs."

Brockman calls unresolved interpersonal conflict "one of the largest reducible productivity costs, yet it is the least identified."


Among Brockman's key findings:

  • The average amount of time reported across all analyzed conflict incidents was 161.25 hours (about 20 days) "lost" in managing conflict (the actual reports of lost time ranged from 0.5 hours to 6,000 hours).
  • The average cost reported across all conflicts was $10,948, with $25 as the minimum and $367,000 as the maximum cost.
  • Those costs may be underestimated, "because the consequences of such behaviors can carry costs."
  • Conflicts are usually primarily triggered by construction issues rather than by people (although a person's reaction to a job issue often becomes a secondary trigger). "I think it's the process, rather than the people," as one superintendent said.
  • The most common resolution techniques were talking (either directly between the sparring parties or facilitated by a supervisor) and physically separating the parties.

'An Adversarial Environment'

The study looked at construction projects worked by multiple trades—an environment of forced interdependence that frequently leads to conflict.

How frequently?

Cutting concrete block

Dangerous jobs—and chronic disagreement over speed vs. safety—can fray tempers and flare into conflicts, study participants say.

"Studies describing the frequency of incidents of interpersonal conflict at work range from 25% to 50% of an employee’s work day," Brockman reports. "In addition, managers, on average, spend 30-42% of their time dealing with conflict between employees."

Interpersonal conflicts account for 90 percent of terminations and 50 percent of resignations, Brockman says. Employees targeted by conflict say they lose 28 percent of their work time avoiding the instigator, and 53 percent say they lose some time worrying about past or future incidents.

Those are generic figures across all workplaces. For the construction industry, "an adversarial environment where conflict is unavoidable," the numbers are surely higher, says Brockman.

Why We Fight

Tight budgets, clashing agendas, change orders, client demands and vendor snafus are all fodders for friction on a construction site.


Working in tight spaces can exacerbate pressure. "It can get ugly, for space," said one participant.

The more common "primary triggers," however, were these:

  • Perceived safety issues. Major disagreements erupt on job sites when one worker gets hurt or endangers another; when supervisors and workers disagree over safety requirements; and when tensions run high during dangerous tasks, the survey participants told Brockman.

"He stood on the second from top step just to grab his tool and come back down," one worker said. "I understand that’s unsafe but, I mean, for five seconds? You know, and this guy came and fired him. Fired him right there."

Another reported: "And one operator in particular was really just flying around the job site. And he bumped, bumped, hit the lift I was in. Me and another guy and, I mean, it was pretty scary."

Recalled a third: "I was down doing something one day and the guys that were do[ing] the ceiling, they got those powder actuated guns and he shot one into the steel right above my head and it scared the crap out of me and I wasn't even paying attention cuz I was doing my thing and he's right above my head and he shoots it in."

  • Rework. Justified or not, suggesting or ordering a journeyman or apprentice to redo some or all of his or her work can be a fast ticket to an argument.

Redos cost money and injure pride in workmanship. One supervisor recalled a painting subcontractor who protested having to redo some work because he felt that the general contractor's "expectations were too high."

  • Missing Equipment / Lack of Tools. Having to borrow and return tools, wait to use equipment, or having someone borrow (with or without permission) tools that weren't returned were all chronic irritants that can easily spark conflicts on a pressured project.
  • Aggressive Scheduling. “Deadlines really, really, really create a lot of conflict," said one participant. "People trying to get in, get out, get their monies.”
  • Owner Specifications. Problems with specifications take many forms.
Work crew

Long hours, job uncertainty and bad weather can all fuel friction on the job site.

Participants spoke of ambiguous specifications, unmet specs, and lack of knowledge about specs. Said one: "Job specifications, we’re not gonna pour that wall until everybody agrees that this is what we’re gonna pour so now, we’re holding up the job because we can’t agree with what those specifications say."

  • Working Conditions. This includes long hours, weather issues ("the cold takes a lot out of the guys"), tight workspaces ("it can get ugly, for space"), and job insecurity ("the nature of the work is we work ourselves out of work").
  • Workmanship. Disagreements over work quality and speed are perennial sources of friction on construction sites, participants noted.

"He required three to four hours of my babysitting time, more than any other trade...just because he was ... I don't wanna say incompetent but he was less knowledgable," said one.

Or, conversely: "He's driving the painter nuts by constantly being in here, asking questions like we don't know our job."

Then there's Trade Jurisdiction, Trade Coordination, Lack of Information, Lack of Communication, Different Ways of Performing Work and even Banter and Horseplay, the study noted. All are considered chronic primary triggers of interpersonal conflict.

Secondary triggers (how people react to the primary trigger situations) add another layer of potential problems, Brockman notes.

Solving It

How to manage conflict? Resolve it as soon and as close to the parties as possible, Brockman advises. Prevention and early intervention are the keys to keeping individual sparks of irritation from igniting blazes of general disagreement.

Educating all levels of personnel to the idea that conflicts are typically caused by situational stressors, not problem people, can also douse some grumbling and may make conflicts less personal, she says.

Managers may want to create a conflict assessment tool for measuring the potential for interpersonal conflict and use the tool to mitigate high-voltage situations.

Reestablishing expectations, allowing time to vent, and scolding abusive workers can also help.

Most helpful, however, may be simply listening and talking, participants said.

As one person told Brockman, "Obviously, communication's the biggest thing, but it is tough."


Tagged categories: Contractors; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Painting Contractors; Research; Subcontractors; Worker training; Workers

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