Applying behavioral research findings on construction projects


The University of Texas at Austin

Behavioral science research in the industrial sector has reached a high level of sophistication in recent years. There have been numerous studies of work group behavior, small group decision making, inter-group decision processes, communication patterns, and other behavioral occurrences in the manufacturing environment (1, 4, 13, 14, 16, 19, 20, 25). This is not true in construction, for research into behavior is in its infancy and progressing slowly (5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18, 24). The result has been that construction organizations have been largely left to their own means of development, in which structures and communication patterns are created naturally from the personalities of those involved. As companies grow in size, as projects become more complex, and as additional personnel are added, difficult human relations problems may arise which threaten the organization’s existence. In attempts to remedy unsatisfactory situations, or deal with unknown behavioral parameters, construction executives and management consultants have drawn from the already existing and extensive library of industrial behavioral research findings. It is the purpose of this paper to present certain problems inherent in this approach.

This paper will outline some of the major differences in the work environments. Comparisons will be made between the voluminous industrial behavioral research findings and exploratory studies in construction where industrially based solutions may have little effect or even be detrimental. Conclusions from the previous comparisons are further supported by behavioral patterns observed on $500,000,000 to $1,000,000,000 projects in which the construction work environment begins to resemble large industrial manufacturing (5, 7, 15).

Differences in Work Environments

The difficulties that occur when industrial-sourced research is applied to construction basically lie in differences between the industrial and construction environments themselves. With two different sets of “givens,” as these environments are, two different sets of conclusions, “or net results,” might be expected to occur.

Divergent Purposes

Most fundamental, the purposes of the two organizations are widely divergent. In construction, the goal is to build a unique structure — one which has never been built before (6). In contrast, the industrial organization seeks to build repetitively a large number of identical products (5). These two facts alone give rise to a host of further diversionary characteristics.

Methods: The principal concern in construction becomes the solution of various, often complex technical matters, usually involving the selection or design of methods. The journeyman wonders whether to do it this way or that; the foremen wonders whether a certain plan detail is practically feasible. For manufacturing, the questions of “how to do it” need be established only once, at the outset of the process. Thereafter, the principal problem becomes the maintenance and possible improvement of productivity. Thus, construction is most concerned with methods; industrial organizations with productivity.

A corollary of the above is that methods are much more restricted for the manufacturer than is the case for the constructor. Typically, the contractor will be free to use any method he chooses, limited only by company tradition, ignorance of available alternatives, or lack of suitable means. For many manufacturers, freedom to change methods largely disappears once plant design is fixed and workers trained. Industrial engineers may make some modifications but these periodically imposed attempts to improve efficiency and productivity are still quite removed from the average construction situation of a confusing array of methods open to any craftsmen.

Profit: Both organizational types are motivated by a desire for profit, but the influence is felt differently on the lower organizational levels (those with which behavioral research has been most concerned). In construction, the project price is usually established by bid or negotiation of a guaranteed maximum figure. Therefore, it must be met if the contractor is to show a profit. On the other hand, in manufacturing, price is determined after-the-fact. Whatever the manufacturer charges, within a certain competitive range, is based on what it cost him to build it. Therefore, profit from an industrial product is more predictable and can be developed by measuring the productive output of workmen whereas in construction, it must be estimated.

Authority and Responsibility

Authority:Further differences between the two types of organizations may be found by examining their responsibility requirements and level of authority. In construction, to a high degree, authority radiates “upward” from the blueprints and other given physical construction requirements (5). These are the ultimate authorities in the accomplishment of construction’s purpose — a creation of the unique structure. This authority comes from external sources such as the owner, architect and engineer — and is felt directly in the field. Conversely, in the manufacturing system, all authority is retained within the hierarchy as consistent and organizational efficiency.

Responsibility:In industrial groups, decisionmaking is carried out at high levels and workmen are relegated to cybernatic-like functions. The industrial workman has little or no responsibility for his actions. He operates another’s machine, according to another’s orders, producing a product designed by still another. In construction, however, very important decisions may be made at very low levels (5, 6). Accordingly, primary responsibility for project work falls on the craftsman, for he is the prime mover in the building process.

The result of these two quite different arrangements of authority and responsibility is that the structure of the contracting industry is quite fluid compared to the rigidity of manufacturing (5). For the construction worker, his environment is one of constantly shifting work assignments, positions of authority, and levels of responsibility. All these tend to be quite static in manufacturing.

Organizational Structures, Control and Supervision Structures: Organizations, at least at the field project level, are short-lived, in the range of a year or so. Work forces must be continually formed and dissolved. The employment period for construction craftsmen is thus relatively short when compared with the industrial worker who may be employed at the same location for many years.

The organizational structure varies by size and complexity of the construction project, but a medium to large project may have five levels in the hierarchy including the home office. On the other hand, large, stable manufacturing organizations have a deep management hierarchy (5).

Control: In construction field organizations, there is no direct flow of authority from the general contractor to his subcontractors. Although the subcontractor is bound by legal requirements to the general contractor, the complex task of integration among highly independent organizations requires cooperation. The general contractor functions as a coordinating agency without strict line control for subcontractors. Even though industrial companies subcontract items, final assembly is usually done in a central location with one company’s work force, so that final control still remains in the hierarchy.

Supervision: Work is performed in groups that are led by fellow union members. The foreman or group leader is subject to demotion to the journeyman classification at the end of a project or if he is incompetent. In either case, he may be working below a man, now the foreman, that he had supervised on a different project. This fact, as well as union discipline for unreasonable pressure on workmen, affect a foreman’s managerial strategy (5).

The discomforting role of union member and company representative is often avoided in manufacturing companies by making the first level supervisor a part of management and requiring that he give up his union affiliation.

Overall Differences in Philosophy

It is not surprising after the above differences are considered that the basic philosophies of the two organizations differ radically. The central thesis for construction may be said to be the domination of uncertainty. In fact, one professor at the University of Texas Graduate School of Business went so far as saying the construction industry seemed to be one which was crisis-oriented and managed accordingly (18). The only givens in construction are the plans and prices and they are both highly variable in certain situations. Costs, responsibilities and authorities, methods, organizational structures, paths of communication all differ from day to day — none are absolute. For the industrial organization, on the other hand, the “absolute” seems commonplace. There is only one correct way to make a product, only one authority to be answered to, only one way to arrive at a final cost.

Clearly then, construction and manufacturing are widely dissimilar in their purposes, premises, and means. How might this dissimilarity, however, be expected to affect the validity of transfer of manufacturing research findings to application upon construction behavior? The answer is as yet unknown, but exploratory studies of construction work behavior indicate that industrially based solutions may have little effect, on, or even be detrimental to, solving construction organizational problems (5).

Applying Industrial-Sourced Behavioral Research Findings

Job Satisfaction and Productivity

In the industrial setting, job enrichment is an important technique aimed at making work more meaningful (14, 22, 25). The hope is that greater job satisfaction will increase productivity. However, initial exploratory research in construction indicates a reverse relationship (5, 6). Well-organized tasks that permit people to be productive lead directly to job satisfaction; this is the reverse of looking to job satisfaction to increase productivity.

One explanation for this reversal is that each level of the hierarchy (owner, manager, supervisor, and workman) identifies with a well defined goal of producing a tangible, physical strucutre. On the other hand, in manufacturing the work output is either intangible or unidentifiable. Interviews with construction personnel indicated a “super-ordinate” goal in which a sense of accomplishment had the greatest effect on job satisfaction (5, 12, 15). Therefore, if construction work is well planned and the project is progressing on schedule, this is more important to construction management than following industry’s efforts of job enrichment by replanning assignments to provide a more rewarding work experience.

Participative decision-making involving workers is yet another means proposed for increasing job satisfaction and productivity in manufacturing. On construction projects, other than very large ones that will be discussed in the next section, decision-making already occurs at very low levels in the hierarchy. For example, foremen for subcontractors are often the top company representatives on a job, and are given the responsibility to get the work done on time and below the estimate. (5) Even foremen working under a general contractor’s superintendent exercise great authority, and often journeymen also participate in methods selection and offer suggestions that are incorporated in planning and in materials, tools, and equipment purchases. Also, foremen and workmen must personally relate to other craftsmen to integrate the work of the various trades. Thus, participative decision making is a fact of life in construction, and it is unlikely that it can become a significant motivator as indicated in manufacturing studies.

This lower level decision making is especially advantageous in construction because of uncertainties in the work environment, such as constantly shifting work assignments, highly variable work methods, variations in weather, etc. Although this uncertainty offers many problems, it also makes the work more challenging and exploratory research interviews indicate that it was this challenge that was most satisfying to almost all construction people.

Although job enrichment and participative decision-making have successful records in improving manufacturing productivity, upper level management may think twice about employing these techniques to construction, where the individual craftsman largely makes his own decisions and is able to view his own creations. Is it necessary to attempt to improve satisfaction in construction? Although further research could provide a definite answer, initial studies do not support this approach to improved productivity.

Span of Control

The span of control hypothesis has been one of the fondest advanced by researchers in manufacturing behavior. Offhand it seems to be a reasonable candidate for application to construction organizations. That is, a foreman should supervise five to eight craftsmen. Based upon the previous consideration of authority coming from engineering design, and not by way of the foreman, why should such close supervision be necessary?

Interview data from foremen in the skilled trades indicated that they could handle large crews from ten to over thirty men (5). The constraint to span of control that was most often mentioned was whether or not the foremen’s work was spread out over a large site. A second additional constraint is set by some unions, i.e. eleven men as the maximum number of sheet metal men in one crew before a second foreman is required. The basic notion was that skilled journeymen are familiar with what they are doing, and require little direct supervision.

Nevertheless, contractors should pay some attention to span of control beyond the figures developed for manufacturing. There may be a tendency to stretch a foreman’s ability by having him manage too many men and also expect him to work with tools. It is false economy to attempt to save supervisory costs, even though the foreman is sure of his ability to manage 20 to 30 craftsmen. Thus, the owner or project manager who isn’t continuously on the jobsite may have a better perspective for the necessity of splitting a crew and adding a foreman without relying on a specific behavioral research formula.

Behavioral Research Applications On Large Industrial Projects

As construction projects become larger and larger, the work itself, decision-making, organizational structure, communication and behavioral problems begin to resemble what occurs in industry (5, 7, 15). Therefore, applications of behavioral science findings from industry may be worthwhile on the $500,000,000 to $1,000,000,000 project with its deep hierarchy and narrow work assignments (parallel to working on auto assembly line).

For example, evidence was found that motivation of crew foremen and workmen by their immediate supervisors was very difficult on an extremely large power plant where interviews of construction personnel were conducted (5). The mechanical and electrical foremen were accustomed to working for local contractors who gave them broad decision-making authority as the company’s top field representative. However, on the power plant project, their sole function was that of pushing the workmen. Thus, the challenge of having full responsibility for a particular phase of the work was missing, and there was much less enthusiasm toward the project.

If this situation exists on large projects, job enrichment or participative decision-making can become as strong a motivator as in industry. Or, perhaps reorganization, based upon division of this entire project into different areas, each managed by groups within a large company, or by smaller construction companies, and with coordination rather than detailed decision-making at the top, is preferable to the greater specialization and less flexible decisionmaking of the large operation (7).

This “coordination” approach may bring the satisfaction inherent in smaller construction projects back to foremen and workmen which, as shown by interviews, was sadly lacking. This may reverse the trend of single specialties such as pulling wire, installing cable trays, checking control circuits, or wiring transformers so that workmen and foremen will be able to feel once again that they are producing a “unique” physical structure.

Communications is another behavioral area of research that is altered as the projects become larger and the hierarchies develop additional levels. The interviews showed a sort of camaraderie at all levels, except on projects involving the largest organizations that encouraged transmitting bad as well as good information to superiors. This “attitude of camaraderie” offers a partial explanation as to why company officers will come on a project and often expect a “chewing out” from a superintendent or foreman if the company isn’t providing him with the necessary support on his project.

What happens on large projects is familiar to manufacturing organizations whereby mutual trust between levels becomes difficult to develop. That is, construction develops the rigidity of large industrial organizations where serious problems do not reach top management. They are massaged by each level in the hierarchy so that a serious problem may become a minor disturbance and little if any action may be taken. Then, when it is too late to do anything constructively, the bottom falls out.


The objective of this paper was to list some of the important differences between manufacturing industries, the source of many behavioral research findings, and construction, in order to emphasize unique characteristics. The results of many personal interviews, interpreted in terms of knowledge about the construction industry and research in organizational behavior, indicate that the construction work environment is usually so different from that of other industries that direct application of results would not be beneficial, and might possibly be detrimental to construction. Therefore, the differences presented, as well as others, must be considered when applying behavioral science research results from manufacturing to construction to improve job satisfaction and/or productivity.

This does not mean that the findings of such researchers as Maslow, McGregor, Likert, Argyris, Blake and Mouton, Drucker and Herzberg, should be ignored (1, 2, 3, 4, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21). Rather, they must not be applied to construction without first evaluating differences in both the industry and its work situations. It should also be emphasized that because of its organization and work situations, a small to medium-sized project (less than $100,000,000) has many things “going for it,” such as a shallow organizational hierarchy and satisfactions in the work situation which offer opportunities not available in the usual manufacturing work environment.

The divergence of work behavior between small projects and jobs with 1,000 to 4,000workmen illustrates that large construction projects may indeed face motivational problems similar to those found in industrial organizations. The important identification with, and satisfaction from, producing a physical structure cannot be nearly as strong on such large projects. Therefore, industrially based job enrichment or participative management programs could give workmen a better workmen a better understanding of how their work is integrated to the entire project. Further behavioral research in the construction industry should be carried out to experiment with and evaluate alternatives - industrial sourced and others which could lead to more productive jobs and increase the satisfaction of individuals at all levels.


1. Argyris, Chris, Integrating the Individual and the Organization, New York Wiley, 1964.

2. Argyris, Chris, Management and Organizational Development; The Path from XA to YB., New York, McGraw Hill, 1971.

3. Blake, R.R., and Mouton, J.S., Corporate Excellence Through Grid Organization Development, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas, 1968.

4. Blake, RR., and Mouton, J.S., The Managerial Grid, Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas, 1964.

5. Borcherding, John D., “An Exploratory Study of Attitudes That Affect Human Resources in Building and Industrial Construction,” Department of Civil Engineering, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1972.

6. Borcherding, John D., and Oglesby, Clarkson H., “Construction Productivity and Job Satisfaction,” Journal of the Construction Division, ASCE, Vol. 100, No C03, Proc. paper 10826, Sept., 1974, pp. 413-431.

7. Borcherding, John D., “Improving Productivity in Industrial Construction,” submitted to Journal of the Construction Division, ASCE, March 1976.

8. Borcherding, John D., and Oglesby, Clarkson H., “Job Dissatisfaction in Construction Work,” Journal of the Construction Division, ASCE Volume 101, No C02, Proc. paper 11390, June 1975, pps. 415-434.

9. Borcherding, John D., “Managerial Strategies for More Effective Utilization of Human Resources in Construction,” The Journal of the American Institute of Constructors, Vol. 3, No. 1, January 1976, pp. 28-32.

10. Catlett, William, “Organizational Structures in the Construction Industry,” unpublished M.S. report for Architectural Engineering Dept. of Civil Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, Feb. 1975.

11. Foster, Charles, Building With Men: An Analysis of Group Behavior and Organization in a Building Firm, London, Tavistock Publishing, 1969.

12. Hahn, Dewayne E. and Borcherding, John D.,A Study of Superintendent and Management Views to Improve Construction Work Relationships, Dept. of Civil Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas, January 1975.

13. Hersey, Paul and Blanchard, Kenneth H., Management of Organizational Behavior, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1972.

14. Herzberg, Frederick, “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?,” Harvard Business Review, Jan.-Feb. 1968, Vol. 46, No. 1, pp. 53-62.

15. Kendall, Bernard, “Understanding Human Behavior Problems Encountered on Large Construction Projects,” unpublished M.S. thesis in progress, Department of Civil Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.

16. Likert, Rensis, New Patterns of Management, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1967.

18. Lott, Wayne H. Jr., and Borcherding, John D., Managerial Techniques Influencing Successful Project Management, Dept. of Civil Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, January 1975.

19. Maslow, Abraham, Motivation and Personality, Harper and Row, New York, New York, 1954.

20. McGregor, D., Leadership and Motivation, W. G. Bennis, E. H. Schien and C. McGregor, eds., MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1966.

21. McGregor, Douglas, The Human Side of Enterprise, McGraw Hill, New York, New York, 1960.

22. Rush, M. F., (ed), Behavioral Science Concepts and Management Applications, Studies in Personnel Policy, No. 216, New York, National Industrial Conference, Inc., 1969.

23. Schrader, Charles R., “Motivation of Construction Craftsmen”, Journal of the Construction Division, ASCE, Vol. 98, Co. C02, Proc. paper 9185, Sept. 1972, pp. 257-273.

24. Schuster, Fred E., “Managing Human Resources as An Integral Part of Resource Management Systems for Project Management,” Project Management Institute.

25. Vroom, Victor H., Work and Motivation, New York, Wiley, 1964.

26.White, Steven, V., “Large Project Management,” Project Management Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 4, December 1975, p. 17


Most interview information came from a study sponsored and partially financed by the Construction Management Institute, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Stanford University(5), Contractors and union officials copperated and were most helpful in arranging and participating in in-depth interviews, Clarkson H. Oglesby, Henry W. Parker and Nancy Morse Samuelson of the Department of civil Engineering were deeply involved in the suggestions and manuscript review for the author's Ph.D. dissertation which provided the most significant data for this paper. Finally, the assistance of former Stanford graduate students Randall Harmsen, Tom McCracken, and especially Tom Martinez is gratefully acknowledged.



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