Constructing Success with Rivals: Project Manager vs. Superintendent

A well-tuned Project Manager/Superintendent relationship makes for a successful construction project. Their leadership is the bedrock underlying project schedule, budget, and quality. Unfortunately, the two often butt heads, which can quickly bring a project crashing down.

Why don't PMs and Supers get along? There’s no easy answer. The friction stems from a number of issues, including construction’s litigious and unpredictable nature, as well as from poor communication structures and opaque hierarchies.

Ultimately, if you figure out how to ensure consistent, productive communication between these two roles, you will reduce delays, increase productivity, and boost site morale. Let’s see how to make that happen.

What's the Beef Between Project Manager and Superintendent?

Ask a construction worker for their views on the typical PM and Super, and they will probably respond that PMs tend to be educated nerds and Supers tend to be hotheaded, school of hard knocks types. While these stereotypes are outdated, they do illustrate the heart of the conflict: PMs represent the office and Supers represent the field.

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This office vs field mentality is the center of the PM/Super relationship. They are where the two sides of a construction project meet, both roles working with different people to complete a successful build. Unfortunately, this is also where wires get crossed, responsibilities get blurred, and the biggest roadblock to project success arises, defensive communication.

Defensive Communication 

When each role feels different pressures from team members with different needs, they pull the project in different directions. Coordinating the enormous number of people involved in a construction project is a monumental task, and it becomes even more difficult if the two leaders aren't working together.

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When the PM and Super focus on their own priorities, they feel obligated to defend their position and a cycle of defensive communication starts. They often end up going over one another’s heads to accomplish the goal they feel is more pressing, fueling the environment of distrust. Once this pattern starts, it causes a rapid communication breakdown that can be difficult to stop.

Defensive communication is not unique to construction, it causes problems across all types of interaction. Here's a further breakdown from an academic study on the subject:

Defense arousal prevents the listener from concentrating upon the message. Not only do defensive communicators send off multiple value, motive and affect cues, but also defensive recipients distort what they receive. As a person becomes more and more defensive, he or she becomes less and less able to perceive accurately the motives, the values and the emotions of the sender.

In short, defensive communication elicits defensive listening, which means that the participants focus more on protecting themselves and less on the actual message being communicated. On the flip side, the study found that an open, collaborative environment allows people to focus on the content of the message and not how they should protect themselves:

The converse, moreover, also is true. The more "supportive" or defense-reductive the climate, the less the receiver reads into the communication distorted loadings which arise from projections of his own anxieties, motives and concerns. As defenses are reduced, the receivers become better able to concentrate upon the structure, the content and the cognitive meanings of the message.

In short, PMs and Supers butt heads because they end up falling into a trap of defensive communication. The best way to ensure these two are a productive duo is by promoting an open, collaborative environment. Making this happen requires three steps to setup and reinforce supportive communication structures:

  1. Define Success

  2. Unite Your Team

  3. Open Your Information

What Is Construction Success?

Success in construction is notoriously difficult to define. The most basic definition is the “iron triangle,” the three corners of cost, schedule, and performance. However, this concept neglects the complex nature of construction, and academic research has set out to create a more detailed definition. In a 2015 case study, Identifying Success in Construction Projects, researcher Terry Williams identified four segments of project success with multiple subsets:

Was the final product good?

  1. Zero defects on building handover
  2. Low defects in use
  3. Easier facilities management for longer structure life cycle

Did the project meet its objectives?

  1. On time
  2. On budget
  3. Produces of a legacy, not just a building

Were the stakeholders satisfied?

  1. Happy customers
  2. Happy users
  3. Happy subcontractors
  4. Happy GC team
  5. Good community relationships

Was project Management Successful?

  1. Good health and safety record
  2. Better project set up and better contract
  3. Fewer changes
  4. Fewer disputes
  5. Smooth/clean/tidy site
  6. Predictability and control of cost, time, quality, and risk

Clearly, there are many factors to success, and it's important to note that these goals don't have to be your goals. Feel free to set your own; however, there's one critical takeaway to keep in mind: you cannot pin any of these on one person. Each piece of success is influenced by the entire project team, from executive down to subcontractor.

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Too often it’s the PM and Super who feel solely responsible for meeting these objectives. The reason it’s important to define success for your entire company is so everyone realizes and adheres to the fact that success depends on every member of the team.

With your goals defined, you're going to have to figure out how to meet them, and the best way to ensure repeatable success in construction is through a unified team. That process begins with the PM and superintendent.

How to Unite Your Construction Team

Creating a united team means having clearly defined roles, so each person understands their own responsibilities and the responsibilities of others. This starts with the project manager and superintendent, then is delegated from there. Typically the PM and Super roles are divided as follows:

Project Manager

Long-Term Focus

  • Setting time, cost, and quality targets
  • Manage schedule, budget, and pay apps
  • Track and oversee design changes
  • Monitor project progress

Superintendent

Day-to-Day Focus

  • Monitor physical job site
  • Relay information between field and office
  • Maintain worksite quality, speed, and morale
  • Coordinate site layout, and direct equipment and deliveries

With roles and responsibilities clearly defined, these two project leaders can move on to setting expectations and responsibilities for the rest of their team. 

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It's critical each person know their expectations, as the key to a well-functioning, unified team is being able to trust that each member can do their job effectively. It also helps prevent crossing wires and going over people's heads. 

In addition to well-defined roles and responsibilities, regular performance evaluations are essential to ensuring everyone is up to par. Team members who cannot pull their weight after a warning must be cut if a project is to proceed successfully.

With roles and responsibilities laid out, the final piece of the puzzle is establishing an open communication framework that reinforces and maintains your team environment. 

Creating Project Transparency

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The final challenge to preventing a PM/Super rivalry rests in democratizing information. Before the rise of cloud servers and mobile technology, sharing information across stakeholders was a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. Now, software automates what used to take hours into a seconds long process. 

In short, you need to implement software that allows for real-time information sharing throughout your team. We've identified 5 steps to streamlining communication that will help you accomplish this:

  1. Choose One Communication Platform
  2. Write Clearly and Concisely
  3. Use Visual and Written Communication
  4. Create Common Frames of Reference
  5. Don’t Let One Person Drop the Ball

Following these steps will help prevent wondering who is doing what, because you'll have live updates of everyone's activities. They also help eliminate miscommunications by making conversations and chats public record.

If you need help choosing the right construction software to help you democratize information, you can check out our construction software buying guide.

Ensuring Repeated Success in Construction

PM and Supers may never be best friends, but with the right structures in place, they can be killer team players. Just be sure to remember the three essential pieces:  

  • Create a shared definition of success
  • Clearly define responsibilities
  • Open communication

If you can make these steps a repeatable, easily implemented process , you will see a drastic decrease in delays, an increase in morale, and general boom in success across all your projects. 

Be sure to check our our blog for more on technology and communication best practices in construction, and subscribe to get notified for our latest articles!