CPD articles

CPD: The psychology of team building

5 September 2012

Click here to be taken to the online CPD test paper for the August 2012 issue.

Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky have shown what can be achieved when the right team is assembled and motivated to a common end. Can the ethos be harnessed by construction, asks Erland Rendall

David Brailsford is the 48-year-old general manager of Team Sky. Along with head coach Shane Sutton, Brailsford set a course to dominate road cycling and deliver the first British victory in the Tour de France. 

Brailsford formed his core team around five cyclists, developing that team through the British Cycling Academy in Manchester and applying strong team principles of talent spotting, skill development, science and nutrition, winning and sports psychology. With the subsequent financial backing of Sky, Team Sky was formed.

On 22 July 2012, Bradley Wiggins was crowned champion of the 2012 Tour de France, the first Englishman to win the Tour since its inception in July 1903, with Team Sky also taking second place.

What lessons can the construction industry draw from the strategy, approach and ultimate success of Team Sky?

Psychology literally is the study of the “soul”, and consequently involves the study of both the mind and resulting behaviours or traits. Its history goes back to the times of the great Greek philosophers Thales, Plato and Aristotle. However, for the commercial environment, it was the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that provided the basis for fresh interest in understanding human resources and why people do what they do, not just what they do.

In the mid-20th century, social science came to the fore and the study of individuals, their behaviour and traits was progressed. A series of studies started in 1924 at the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company in Illinois — the manufacturing arm of AT&T — by Edwin Mayo. This work (and others) triggered the notion that understanding individuals, their behaviours, personality and motivations etc, could be used to inform working environments, and the make-up of teams or groups to achieve successful outcomes. 

Psychology and construction

So what is the relevance of psychology for construction and the various roles within the industry? Considering the inherent challenges in the construction cycle, including project duration often spread over several years, the changes of personnel within that time, the different engagement at key project stages, the bespoke nature of projects, procurement constraints and lack of integration, trust etc, there is no greater need than to improve understanding, communication and team working to overcome these challenges.

Our motives are major determinants of our behaviour. If we understand our own motives and those of others, we can ensure that our own behaviour and that of others will deliver better performance and outcomes.

Using a “profile approach” therefore encourages sensitivity and understanding of others and their individual differences. Using this understanding, we can adopt differing styles and approaches to achieve positive motivation for individuals and/or teams, develop cohesion and enhance performance.

Teams — whether they are “internal” to organisations, departments or functions, or “external” when delivering a project, programme or portfolio — dominate the construction industry. It’s not uncommon for people to have worked in teams where the personalities of certain members simply clash, or where team performance is diminished through a difference in personality, trait or behaviour. Understanding each other is therefore a great first step in forming better teams.

Team Sky: value of teamwork

There are five core factors of personality with associated traits, which can be easily remembered using the mnemonic OCEAN, which stands for:

Openness to experience: fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas, and values

Conscientiousness: competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline, and deliberation

Extroversion: warmth, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity, excitement seeking, and positive emotions

Agreeableness: trust, straightforwardness, altruism, compliance, modesty, and tender-mindedness

Neuroticism (or Emotional Stability): worry, anger, discouragement, self-consciousness, impulsiveness, and vulnerability

Openness runs on a continuum from “explorer” to “preserver”. Explorer (O+) traits are useful for entrepreneurs, architects, change agents, artists and theoretical scientists. Preserver (O-) traits are useful for finance managers (including QSs), project managers, stage performers and applied scientists. Those in the middle (O) are labelled “moderates” and are interested in novelty when necessity demands, but not for too long.

Conscientiousness runs from “focused” to “flexible”. Focused (C+) traits are for leaders, senior executives and other high-achievers. Flexible (C-) traits are useful for researchers, detectives and management consultants. Those in the middle (C) are “balanced” and find it easy to move from focus to flexible, from production to research.

Extroversion runs from “extrovert” to “introvert”. Extrovert (E+) traits are useful in sales, politics and the arts. Introvert (E-) traits are useful for production management and in the physical and natural sciences. Those in the middle of this spectrum (E) are “ambiverts” who move easily from isolation to social settings.

Agreeableness runs from “adapter” to “challenger”. Adapter (A+) traits are useful for teaching, social work and psychology. Challenger (A-) traits are useful in military leadership, advertising and management. Those in the middle (A) are “negotiators”, who move from leadership to a follower position as the situation requires.

Finally, neuroticism runs from “reactive” to “resilient”. Reactive emotional traits (N+) are useful for social scientists, academics and client-relationship managers. Resilient (N-) traits are useful for air-traffic controllers, airline pilots, military snipers, finance managers and engineers. Those in the middle of this spectrum (N) are “responsives” who are able to use levels of emotionality appropriate to the circumstances.

Many organisations, through the recruitment process, will use psychometric assessments to understand the personality traits of potential candidates. Subsequent training and development programmes will also build on this understanding through the training and development of those individuals. If this data is to hand, why not share this in your team? Companies and individuals are often reluctant to discuss this data openly, but there is a strong case for making it available to teams and team leaders, as part of an overall culture of collaboration and transparency.  

By understanding individuals, team members can be assessed, managed and coached to develop higher performance, or teams can be pre-designed, aligned to the ultimate outcomes the team is looking to deliver.

Table 1 is a quick assessment that can help to assess how well your team is performing. Circle the rating against each criteria and then add up your total score.

Getting the best from teams

Collaboration is a process that can develop when groups or teams work together purposively to solve a problem, make a decision or achieve a common goal, and members take ownership of and responsibility for the work of the group. In order to increase collaboration, it is necessary to: improve team cohesion; have groups and teams working on tasks where there is an independent goal; provide the group or team with regular feedback; give the group or team information about its performance.

Clearly, the task on which a group or team is working as well as its goal, is important in guiding individual team member behaviour. The task must be one that requires at least some level of interaction and the goal must be a team goal (see table 2).

As you progress from workflow pattern 1 through to 5, the level of team entiativity (or group thinking) required increases. Patterns 1 to 3 predominate in construction, although patterns 4 and 5 can probably be identified in major projects such as the Olympics, and the logic of BIM also suggests that they will be more in evidence in the future. It has been found that interdependence improves cohesion and collaboration and, as a result, it increases both member and overall team productivity.

Virtual teams

With increased reliance on technology and international working, teams that cross geographical and time boundaries are becoming more and more the norm. All teams in construction work virtually to some extent and in some ways, working in a virtual team requires the same ingredients for success as a normal team.

But by losing elements of face-to-face time, what different processes are required to ensure team performance and effective outputs? Most disadvantages to virtual working relate to communication. Put simply, you lose the non-verbal component of communication. Research has proven that working “virtually” does impact on the performance of those teams — both positively and negatively. In such environments, matching the team members to the tasks, and the communication technology, is critical. 


When it comes to team performance, the construction industry often refers to sporting achievement as a metaphor for learning. Individual personality, traits and behaviours will inform the position the individual person will take within a team and the role that will be performed.

At all stages of the construction process, irrespective of role, you can influence the outcome. It is crucial to develop a full understanding of the self, with corroboration from others to balance self-perception. With an increased focus on the benefits derived from effective team working and where collaboration is being driven within the construction industry enabled further by technology, the cultural change will be key to success.

The real gains of collaboration and learned interdependence will transform the industry, resulting in competitive innovation and provide a global winning advantage — just like Team Sky.

Erland Rendall is a former director of Davis Langdon who now runs Atorus Consult, which works with clients to enhance strategic, management or operational thinking and execution

Click here to be taken to the online CPD test paper for the August 2012 issue



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