Are you an owner, executive, project manager, foremen or superintendent who has an insatiable need to be right? Has this all-encompassing need to be right destroyed any of your professional relationships? Think about it and then consider whether or not you’re willing to make the leap from having to be right all the time to being successful?  

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and I asked, “How do you keep the relationship between contractor and subcontractor intact when the general contractor is doing everything wrong?” He replied, “Don’t focus on what the contractor’s doing wrong. Focus on doing the right things.”

Psychotherapist Mel Schwartz in a Psychology Todayarticle said, “One of the most prevalent—and damaging—themes in our culture is the need to be right.”

I think what my friend, as well as Schwartz, are both saying is that our insatiable need to be right causes us to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” In other words, when it’s our goal to prove to our client that he or she is wrong, the relationship begins to crumble and if we continue to beat our clients over the head with our rightness, the relationship spirals out of control.

Elvis Presley sang “It Feels So Right” with the lyrics, “It feels so right, so right, how can it be wrong.” Leaving us with a decision, “shall I be right or successful?”

The Difference

Let’s agree that Elvis is correct and that it does feel good to be right but does it result in harmonious relationships, successful projects or a successful career?

Making the leap from being right to being successful has more to do with doing the right things. What are some of the right things a project manager can do to complete projects successfully and keep client relationships intact? Obviously, we should avoid telling the client how wrong they are but rather begin with understanding the client’s problem so we can understand why the client is doing something that is impacting our work.

Once we understand the why we are better prepared to offer solutions or a compelling story of why what they’re doing is impacting us. The key is to begin the communication process in person rather than in writing because it’s difficult for a client to take a hostile position on a well-prepared presentation done in person.

A compelling story begins by:

  • Identify the problem and its root cause
  • Communicate the problem and its impact
  • Offer solutions, options and costs

But first, you have to be bold enough to start the conversation.

A Compelling Story Script

Step I: Be Bold: Start the Conversation

PM: “Jim, I’d like to talk to you about a problem.”

Client: “OK, what’s the problem?”

Step II: State the Problem and Root Cause

PM: “We were told to leave the drywall off all 48 bathroom ceilings on the first floor. I understand the owner chose a different ceiling light fixture and the new fixtures won’t be delivered in time?”

Client: “Yes, that’s true but you can cover all the walls.”

Step III: Explain the Impact: Offer Options/Solutions

PM: “Yes, we are covering the walls but the problem is that we’re going to have to come back to each unit bathroom to hang the ceiling and then tape and finish the walls and ceilings after the unit is painted, carpeted and tiled. I’d like to suggest that we try to avoid this expense by asking the owner to accept the original fixtures because they are on-site and can be installed now. If the owner refuses, the next best option is to delay the finishes until we get the bathrooms done. The only other option I can think of is to credit the owner the amount we estimated for the bathroom work and re-estimate the cost based on how we will have to do the work. What do you suggest is the best way to handle this problem?

Client: “Well, we can’t delay the finishes and I’ve already approached the owner on using the original light fixtures, and he said ‘no.’ It looks like our only option is for you to give us a price.”

PM: “I’ve already put a price together and it amounts to an additional $750 per bathroom or a total of $36,000, and I think I’ve provided the details you will need. I’d appreciate it if you could review the change and offer any suggestions so it doesn’t delay things. Do you have time to look at it now?”

Client: “Send it to me and I’ll look at in the morning.”

PM: “I’ll check in with you later in the morning.”

It’s Not Confrontation

Properly presenting a compelling story of what you believe to be true is not confrontation. Confrontation is the exact opposite of problem solving, knowing that confrontation creates new and different problems. The art of solving a project problem has more to do with one’s ability to communicate persuasively, which requires skill, motivation, confidence and a strong understanding of where a subcontractor’s profit actually comes from.

When it comes to skill, motivation, confidence and an understanding of where our profits come from, many project managers have conflicting beliefs. Take a look and decide if these conflicting beliefs apply to you or an employee:


  • Effective internal/external communication
    • I’m more concerned about what others think of me
    • I avoid personal contact
    • I prefer texting or email
  • Teamwork
    • I avoid developing relationships
    • I prefer following rather than leading
    • I prefer working independently
  • Estimating, pricing changes
    • I think I know my costs but I really don’t
    • I don’t see the opportunities
    • I don’t want the client to question my pricing
  • Schedule, sequence, manpower, supervision management
    • This is someone else’s responsibility
    • I don’t see the impact
  • Problem solving
    • I don’t see problems coming,
    • I prefer that someone else deal with them
    • I avoid conflict, would rather go with the flow
    • I don’t know how to think critically
  • Vision or purpose
    • It’s just a job
    • I don’t see what’s in it for me
    • My employer doesn’t care about me
    • I have to look out for myself


  • Commitment
    • I’m not 100 percent committed to this company or career
    • My next job could be working for my client
    • I don’t want to be responsible for final outcome
  • Exceed expectations
    • My expectations are low
    • I would rather set the bar low and play it safe
    • I’m not sure what is expected of me
    • I’m not a miracle worker
  • Enthusiasm
    • I’m not overly enthusiastic about my project or job
    • I don’t look forward to Monday morning


  • Leadership
    • I avoid the leadership role
    • I don’t want the responsibility
    • I don’t want to be criticized 
  • Relationships
    • I avoid them
    • I prefer working alone-independent of the team-client
    • I don’t want to deal with conflict
    • I’d rather not deal with people
  • Intellect
    • I use intellect/education as a defense
    • I don’t value “street smarts” experience in others
    • I’m underutilized and should be running the company
  • Knowledge
    • I have a limited knowledge of construction
    • I won’t take advice from people in the trenches
    • I don’t listen to constructive criticism/don’t want to hear it


  • Foremen/supervision
    • I can’t deal with these pushy personalities
    • They are not as important as I am
    • They don’t respect me
    • They don’t tell me—I tell them
  • Labor
    • I don’t need to be involve myself with the field
    • I’m not here to serve them
    • They don’t know me and I don’t know them
    • The field shouldn’t get the credit for a profitable job

Another disturbing trend in the “having-to-be-right syndrome” is how some project managers have become very proficient in distorting a projects financial picture. The two most common ways of distorting a job cost is by entering potential pending change orders that never get executed and by over progressing the work complete. 

Why would a project manager do such a thing, you ask? The short answer is they avoid conflict at all costs, they don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, and would rather the bad news be spread over time or towards the end of a project for a variety of reasons including those noted above.

Employers spend millions of dollars each year on consultants who teach employees how to work as a team and how to be great leaders. What if I said, “There are a lot of employees (project managers included) who don’t want to work as a team, and who don’t want to lead.” What I’m suggesting is that employers consider their employees engagement and skill level before spending money on team building and leadership development.

Engagement Level

There are two types of employees (project managers) those who are observers and those who are highly engaged participants. What’s the difference between the two? Let’s take a look.


  • Not highly engaged
  • They do tasks
  • Go with the flow
  • Reporters
  • Bystanders
  • Onlookers
  • Loners
  • Fearful

Participants Are:

  • Highly engaged
  • Have high expectations
  • Inspect for what they expect
  • Connected to their team
  • They listen, see and read
  • They ask the right questions
  • They identify and resolve problems
  • They are brave
  • They are very persistent buggers 

Highly engaged participants are employees who do right things the right way, with their company’s best interests in mind. Observers are not so inclined and it shows. 

Skill Level

Assessing an employees (project manager’s) skill level is easy in comparison to assessing someone’s engagement level. I’m talking hard skills rather than soft skills. Hard skills in our business includes but is not limited to, blue printing reading, pricing, document and schedule management, proposal writing, job cost management—and the list goes on. These are all hard skills.

It’s true that we need people who have these hard skills, and it’s easy to teach our employees hard skills, but hard skills alone won’t get the results employers want and need. Employers want successful projects and repeat business. That’s what they want, and that’s what they need.

Here is the most amazing piece of information I’ve come to learn and that is in every case, the owners of successful subcontracting companies possess off the charts soft skills as compared to hard skills.

I want to ask the same question I opened with. Are you an owner, executive, project manager, foremen or superintendent who has an insatiable need to be right rather than an insatiable need to do the right things? If being right is more important to you than learning and doing the right things in managing a project, you most likely fall into the observer-conflicting belief category. Having to be right rarely results in successful outcomes and in the end it will get you.


The opinions contained in this article are the writer’s opinions and should not be construed in any way as legal, tax or employment advice. Readers are encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney, accountant or human resource professional before relying upon or acting upon the information contained in this article. Remember: Teamwork begins with a fair contract.