Motivating employees to achieve peak performance day in and day out is one of the most challenging aspects of managing a construction team. How can we get our field managers to work as hard and care as much about the project as we do? To solve that problem, construction managers should ask what motivates them to want to work so hard to complete the project successfully.

In 1960, Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise where he proposed two motivational models: Theory X and Theory Y. The Theory X model was based on the idea that people naturally don't like to work, lack ambition, and therefore need to be coerced to work. Workers in this model prefer being told what to do. Theory X is the predominant management style used in the construction industry. Management holds the power and exerts control over the workforce.

But people today are different and react differently. Many construction executives are changing the way they are motivating employees and increasing job performance and are looking to a Theory Y model. Theory Y assumes that people do not dislike work and may in fact actively seek it. In the Theory Y model, people do not need authoritative leadership, but prefer participative management. People prefer to set their own goals. They actually seek responsibility rather than shirk it. Managing based on these assumptions leads to a very different approach to motivation that sees management's role as more than just giving orders and forcing individuals to do their job. Theory Y managers believe that balancing the needs of the individual and the organization leads to greater overall productivity.

If you look in the mirror as if you were one of your workers, you may see a bit of a Theory X-er looking back. There may be days when you don't want the responsibility of participating, and would rather be told what to do. More often, though, you are going to see someone who relishes the responsibility and is empowered to get the job done, and done right—someone who sees work as more than just a paycheck, and likes the sense of accomplishment.

We don't hear much talk about theories X and Y anymore because the real working world is not made up of one or the other type of person, and managers often have a hard time empowering workers and giving them more responsibility for the outcome. Managers may even feel as if they are giving up their jobs to their employees. That's why this shift in management style doesn't happen overnight, and trying to force the change can lead to failure.

Nonetheless, Theory Y has many benefits, including the ability to attract and retain the best people. Managers seeking to make the transition will work toward:

  • Removing obstacles that hinder employees' success; ask them how to help them do their jobs better.
  • Rewarding behaviors, such as reaching milestones on schedule or completing a zero-injury job.
  • Celebrating success and letting everyone know when an employee does a good job.
  • Empowering employees by allowing them to have input into team goals.
  • Structuring incentives and compensation to reward success.
  • Communicating expectations, objectives, needs, and desires, and ensuring that they are understood.

    Understanding what motivates you to work hard and do a thorough job is a good starting place, but you still need to learn what motivates those who work for you. A manager's job is to balance the needs of the workforce with the needs of the company and align the two to achieve success.

    Brian Moore is a consultant with FMI, management consultants to the construction industry. Brian works with contractors and construction materials producers on various strategic, financial, and operational issues. Specifically, his work at FMI involves in-depth market analysis, strategic and business planning, and market planning for clients throughout the nation. He can be reached at 919-785-9269 or by e-mail at