The architecture, engineering and construction sector is notorious for its challenges, from tight deadlines to unexpected planning, permitting, design and construction obstacles. Whether working in water, transportation, power or some other industry, teams are often faced with unexpected issues in an intense, often high-stress and highly charged environment.

Design-build projects are especially challenging and complex, with demanding time frames and stringent budget restrictions. This heightened complexity can be attributed to the integration of both the design and construction phases early, requiring a finely tuned balance of creativity and practicality.

In these dynamic environments, the skills of project managers, architects and builders are put to the test because they must collaborate seamlessly to safely complete projects within tight schedules and financial limits. This collaborative nature, intertwined with the necessity for innovative problem-solving and meticulous planning, makes design-build projects ideal for incorporating widespread empathy.

Defined as seeing a situation from another’s perspective, empathy requires us to focus on more than just deliverables, numbers and logistics. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy, which is the act of feeling sorry for someone else and can leave a person feeling superior or inferior depending on the situation. By contrast, empathy puts everyone on a more level playing field. The power of empathy in the workplace is backed by research. As reported in Evolutionary Biology, when empathy is used in decision-making it improves cooperation and fosters even more empathy in others. Additionally, findings in the Academy of Management Journal revealed that individuals who experienced rudeness and a lack of empathy from others showed diminished work performance and were less inclined to assist those they worked with.

While it can sometimes feel uncomfortable and seem counterintuitive when we are under pressure, a highly empathetic work culture can help shift attitudes, reduce project stress, make spaces safer and improve productivity and quality by minimizing hurt feelings, misunderstandings and disagreements. The success or failure of a project often hinges on human emotions and the way team members feel they are treated, seen or heard when working on a project. These dynamics make an empathetic mindset crucial in the workplace, especially when it comes to design-build projects that have so many moving parts. 

Design-build projects — perhaps more than others — are known for two key attributes: rapid delivery and cost-effective solutions. Empathy can help us achieve both of those goals by improving communication, which in turn improves team understanding, morale and cohesion. An environment with fewer conflicts breeds a spirit of teamwork and a willingness to try new techniques that support mutual success.

Creating an empathetic culture on a design-build project involves several key strategies:

  • Engaging in active listening. This form of listening involves paying attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues, and it is a powerful way to demonstrate empathy. Design-build teams are typically diverse, bringing together people from different companies with disparate viewpoints and levels of experience. Everyone needs to feel confident in expressing their opinions and ideas. By providing nonjudgmental responses, we can help validate experiences and foster connection. Remember, it is just as imperative to recognize what is not being said as it is to hear what is being said, so turn off devices and pay full attention to others.

  • Creating genuine connections. Design-build teams typically involve multiple partners and sometimes more than one owner. With so many individuals in the mix, it can be challenging to build a trusting environment where people feel confident offering good ideas, and comfortable questioning not-so-good ideas. Being vulnerable and considering the motivating factors behind our colleagues’ actions can go a long way toward building real connections. Encouraging open, honest communication and sharing individual experiences creates an empathetic environment and can help build strong bonds built on trust.

  • Treating others how you want to be treated. Modeling positive, empathetic behavior with team members can be a project game changer. Design-build projects can involve working long hours, so small gestures like staying late to surprise your team with dinner or jumping in to help others with their tasks can set the tone for a collaborative and appreciative atmosphere. Positive emotions are infectious, and attitudes of team members can significantly impact a team’s dynamics. That is why modeling empathy is essential, especially by leadership.

  • Overcoming biases. Design-build teams are expected to bring fresh, innovative ideas to the table. But we all carry inherent biases from our previous projects, working relationships and personal lives. These biases have the potential to distort our understanding and comprehension of the experiences of others, ultimately resulting in flawed presumptions and misunderstandings. It is important to recognize these biases and try to overcome them as an essential step in nurturing and fostering genuine empathy.

  • Seeking first to understand. Design-build projects can be complex, demanding and stressful. When challenges arise, we may be surprised, hurt or even angry when a team member or client reacts in a way we do not expect. But it is important to remember that we all carry the pressures of our professional and personal lives with us to the office or the job site each day. Try to consider how your team members’ different life experiences and backgrounds can impact their perspectives and communication styles. Mastering the skill of seeing through another person’s eyes, even when individuals do not agree, requires practice and patience. But it can help you take disagreements less personally and focus on the facts, both of which are vital to the success of a collaborative project.

Constructing safe and successful projects extends beyond technical skills. Integrating empathy into your project management style can turn a disorganized and stressed-out design-build team into a cohesive and productive unit, elevating overall project outcomes.


Companies, through a shared commitment to high-quality work and ethics, can help foster a better work environment and world for us all.


Michael Mack serves as transportation alternative delivery design director at Burns & McDonnell. He has more than 30 years of experience managing the design of large, complex, multidiscipline infrastructure/transportation projects within the private and public sectors.