Emotional Intelligence in Construction

What’s your mama’s house story? And what does it have to do with emotional intelligence (EQ)?

Your “mama’s house” is the environment you grew up in. And when we talk about human behavior and EQ, a lot of what we talk about is rooted in the impact our mama’s house has had on who we are today as adults.

As Dr. Lonnie Haas of NC State University put it, “You didn’t grow up in my mama’s house… and I didn’t grow up in your mama’s house.”

Research over the last couple of decades has shown that EQ plays a major role in a person’s success. In this lesson, Adamchik explored why EQ is essential for Dirt World leaders, and why the ability to work with people in an emotionally intelligent way is a necessary trait for effective leadership.

What EQ is, and what it’s not.

EQ is the ability to monitor both your own and others’ emotions, and to use this information to guide your thinking and actions. In other words, EQ is the ability to make your emotions work for you, instead of against you.

But before going further, you need to be clear about what EQ is not. EQ’s not about suppressing emotions or being more emotional. It’s also not about being agreeable, reading others, or even optimistic, although many of these factors play a role.

The way we grew up — our mama's house story — has an effect on the lens we use to view the world, and these different lenses can lead to misunderstandings. “And when we have misunderstandings,” Adamchik said, “we get a little emotional, and we ultimately end up carrying a lot of baggage. So we’ve got to learn to unpack that baggage and get rid of it.”

Creating a Ph.D in you.

So here’s some good news: neuroplasticity. It means our brains are capable of learning, so yes, we can teach an old dog new tricks. Here’s how to get up to speed on your emotional intelligence:

What makes you tick? Start with self-awareness, so you can tune in to your blind spots. Create a Ph.D in you by observing how you interact with people. Critique yourself: “You’re saying, wow, that’s not going right, try this, try that,” Adamchik explained. “You’re making you the expert on you. And when you do this, you make your interpersonal relationships better.”

This expertise means you can critique the thing you’re doing while you’re doing it. For example, when you’re driving, you’re always scanning the road in front of you, and probably behind you, too. In other words, you’re thinking through all the options while you’re doing the thing you’re doing. That’s expertise.

It’s not about lowering standards. Some people think EQ is about coddling others by lowering the standard. Adamchik was adamant: “I will never say, lower the standard. EQ isn’t about lowering the standard, it’s about putting more tools in our toolbox to help us understand ourselves and others.”

Understanding nature and nurture. The concept of nature and nurture plays a role in why you are the way you are. “You can look at the nature piece as your hardware,” Adamchik said. “The nurture piece, that’s your mama’s house story. And that piece is your software, or programming. This nature and nurture — your hardware and your programming — combine to form a set of beliefs, values, and attitudes, which in turn creates a set of behaviors.”

Exploring other concepts in the EQ model.

There’s a lot going on in the EQ model Adamchik presented in this lesson. “As you look and consider this model, you can see it’s about more than being nice,” Adamchik pointed out. “There are a lot of layers here.”

Self-awareness. As we discussed, self-awareness is your key to creating that Ph.D in you. In the EQ model, self-awareness lies in the Self-perception sector. It’s about asking yourself, do you know what’s going on inside you, and why? Or are you just along for the ride?

Assertiveness. Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your feelings, beliefs, and thoughts in a socially acceptable, non-offensive, and non-destructive manner. “Construction professionals don’t have problems asserting themselves,” Adamchik said. “Where they do sometimes have problems is being assertive in a socially acceptable, non-offensive, and non-destructive manner.”

Empathy. Empathy isn’t about sympathy. It’s about the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Here’s what empathy looks like in action: during a conversation, the spotlight is on whoever is talking. And if the person you’re talking to is having a moment, empathy is about you asking them to tell you how they’re feeling. So you don’t steal the spotlight, you leave it on the other person.

Impulse control. What do we mean by impulse control? “It’s the ability to resist or delay an impulse,” Adamchik explained. “It means when you ping, I don’t have to pong. In construction, time is money. So you’re paid to make decisions, and move quickly. Impulse control helps you do that.”

Stress tolerance. Stress tolerance lies in the Stress Management sector. It’s exactly what it sounds like — how much stress can you tolerate? Many construction leaders have a high stress tolerance. But eventually, you can’t take it anymore. Or maybe you can take it. But you’ve got a team, and at some point they end up taking it too. So stress tolerance is great, until it isn’t.

Optimism. Optimism can also be found under Stress Management. “Optimism is one of those force multipliers, like artillery,” Adamchik said. “Big impact. And it’s not about going around saying, everything’s great. It’s about a positive outlook on life, the ability to remain hopeful and resilient despite occasional setbacks. And it’s something we need even more today than ever before.”

How to short circuit the fight or flight mechanism.

You want to understand what your triggers are, so you can respond to life, rather than always reacting. But the thing is, when your fight or flight mechanism kicks in, you’re no longer doing that "Ph.D in you" thing. Your amygdala boots your cortex out of the driver’s seat, cortisol rushes through your body, and you’re in total React mode before you know it.

But there’s a way to short circuit this so you're responding, not reacting. “You take a deep breath,” Adamchik said. “This moves the oxygen to the frontal part of your brain, so you can begin to think again. And you can say, whoa, what am I doing here? What’s going on?”


Emotions and behaviors are the part of us that show up to work every day. Instead of thinking about your feelings, ask yourself, how am I showing up today?

  • Am I learning from other people?
  • Am I being narrow-minded?
  • Do I pause to think, so I can respond rather than react?
  • When was the last time I apologized to someone?
  • When was the last time I gave someone recognition?

Remember, don't react. Respond.

By showing up authentically and examining your emotions and how they’re working for and against you, you’ll be on your way to a mastery level of EQ.