The world is in urgent need for more, better, and less costly housing. However, building projects often encounter snags that lead to cost overruns. Nuno Oliveira, Nicholas Argyres, and Fabrice Lumineau write that some managers are better than others at limiting the problem. They say that a manager’s communication style plays a key role in determining the speed of recovery from building disruption.
From the global south to the global north, households are paying high rents to live in low quality, inadequate homes. The shortage of affordable homes “sits at the centre of Britain’s ills” (Hashi, 2022) and has “consequences for the quality of American family life” (Badger & Washington, 2022). Lagos, Nigeria, with its population of 17.07 million, is an example of a developing country city with a particularly acute affordable housing crisis. The World Resources Institute estimates that 330 million urban households lack affordable housing worldwide (King, Orloff, Virsilas, & Pande, 2017). This number is forecast to grow to 440 million households by 2025.
The most commonly offered solutions to the world’s affordable housing crisis involve more funding, ingenious design, and innovative materials (Crawford, 2006). While these are no doubt important, we also simply need to build more and better housing at lower cost. All over the globe, housing developers and their funders face an age-old problem: building projects consistently encounter snags that lead to cost overruns. What to do?
A typical response is to rely on large, professional project management firms (Winch, 2014). Yet, projects continue to be delayed despite the employment of these firms. In the meantime, the housing crisis worsens.
Communication style matters
Housing project disruptions, such as those caused by delayed deliveries or technical glitches, occur with high frequency in part because project operations are often complex and involve significant uncertainty. While many of these kinds of disruptions cannot be anticipated, some managers are better than others at limiting the damage and getting the projects back on track.
Beyond simply delegating tasks, we suggest that a manager’s communication style – what and how she shares information with the various parties contributing to the project – plays a key role in determining the speed of recovery from a disruption (Oliveira, Argyres, & Lumineau, 2022). Unfortunately, communication style is subtle and nuanced in ways that are not always understood or appreciated. Indeed, busy managers often pay little attention to their communication style or approach it in a self-defeating way.
For example, communication to project partners that consistently focuses on the bottom-line cost concerns often leads to a zero-sum mindset among project partners that fuels a struggle for resources among them. Missing in this style is an interest in stimulating deeper problem formulation and problem solving. Project managers who over-emphasize immediate cost considerations thus risk alienating their partners and failing to achieve their cost reduction goals.
On the other hand, a communication style that signals interest in joint problem formulation and mutual assistance tends to reduce total project costs at little additional cost to the communicating manager’s organisation. Managers employing this kind of communication style are able to lead resolution processes to deal with project disruptions that are far quicker, more collaborative, and more adaptive. Such managers sometimes reach out to external stakeholders, even those not directly working on the project, to identify a path forward.
Key features of communication style
Importantly, how communication is delivered can be just as important as what is communicated (Oliveira, Argyres, & Lumineau, 2022). Communication styles differ on three core attributes: informality, authenticity, and precision.
Informality of communications involves using casual or personal features to avoid a threatening or bureaucratic tone. Informality encourages discussion amongst project partners when dealing with unexpected disruptions. It helps partners to let their guard down, enabling them to better focus on processing and comprehend the matter at hand. Conversely, formality could be mistaken for interference rather than problem-solving. It can elicit reluctance to follow through with solutions, hampering progress toward resolving disruptions.
Communication that is high on authenticity is seen as honest and candid. For example, an authentic communication by a manager might include an admission that they do not have the right information to make a decision, or that they need to defer to a higher authority. During project disruptions, authentic communication can help partners engage in more candid discussions about collaborative solutions.
Communication precision involves conveying sufficient details about the project disruption. Project partners must understand what is going on, what is needed to be done, and what effective outcomes look like. High-precision communication makes efforts to resolve project disruptions more immediately actionable.
Based on our research, we suggest that communication styles in affordable housing projects often lack one or more of these style elements. Conversely, the presence of all three significantly facilitates the quick resolution of project disruptions. Therefore, a better understanding by managers about how their communications are received by project partners can significantly lower housing project costs.
While underappreciated, it is key to addressing the world’s housing crisis.
- This blog post is based on The role of communication style in adaptation to interorganizational project disruptions, Journal of Operations Management.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Milo Miloezger on Unsplash
- When you leave a comment, you’re agreeing to our Comment Policy.