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By Duane Craig
September 18, 2017
Construction disputes in North America are taking longer to settle, but costing less, according to an ARCADIS report. The biggest cause of disputes is errors and omissions in contracts, but human emotion, and the drive to be “right” is behind a disturbing trend that’s interfering with early resolution.
Even though the North American construction industry has come around to using better contracts, is better at risk allocation and has better-educated participants, human emotion is still sending disputes all the way to the courtroom. It’s the drive to be right that’s getting in the way of quick resolutions even though being right often ends costing way more than settling.
When Right is Wrong
Consider the fictional case involving a change order, a contractor and a third party. The contractor was required to notify a third party about a change, but the third party claims they didn’t receive notification. The owner disallows the bill for the change because the contractor neglected to follow the change order process.
The contractor is probably going to be more than a little pissed off and feel taken advantage of to find the owner denied payment. No doubt, the contractor is also going to feel “right” about how they handled the situation. The owner too feels “right.” If neither one steps back and decides being right is not as important as keeping the project successful, then the dispute escalates.
As it builds, both sides start spending more and more resources on the dispute, emotions continue to seethe, and multiple aspects of the project face disruption. It’s as if an emotional program is determined to satisfy egos at the expense of everything else.
It’s Built Into Our Psyche
The fact of the matter is that the pursuit of “being right” is deeply ingrained in business values of developed nations, according to Mel Schwartz, psychotherapist.
“In first world cultures the drive to be right advances one in the competitive race. In the desire to get ahead this is utilized as a core value. I would actually suggest that this is a highly pervasive fixation attachment that ruins our relationships, derails our mindfulness and erodes our natural instinct to learn,” he wrote in Psychology Today.
Being right sparks many emotions like anger, fear, righteousness and feelings of superiority. And, each of those puts up barriers to resolving disputes. For example, anger clouds objectivity, eventually becomes the aspect that everything revolves around, and it changes goals from getting agreement to getting even.
In many cases, it’s positive emotions that increase your chances of reaching acceptable outcomes in disputes. Ignoring the drive to be right, usually opens up doors to solutions, and short circuits the negative downward spirals associated with drawn out disputes.
Both Types of Emotions Count
But, there is also a place for emotions in dispute resolution. Emotions can have positive or negative effects on negotiation. Reaching a settlement comes down to reaching an emotional impasse. It’s not that parties must have all their obstacles addressed, but just that the settlement must look like the best option, according to Michelle Maiese, in "Emotions. Beyond Intractability.” Feelings help to move parties toward solutions. An emotionally uninvolved party stacks the deck against resolution.
Maiese writes that when people reach agreement they get positive emotional rewards like trust, respect, recognition, honor, satisfaction and a sense of belonging. It’s up to the parties involved in the dispute resolution effort to find ways to recognize the negative emotions, and understand their sources before seeking resolutions.
“Rather than ignore the power emotions have over people trying to resolve a dispute, the trick is to empathize with everyone involved in a negotiation and enlist positive emotions to come to a mutually agreeable resolution,” advised Alice M. Sherren, claim attorney with Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company.
When Being Right Causes Disputes
The quest to be right also causes disputes. Just consider this scenario. A subcontractor has a way of doing something they think is the right way. The plans specify a different method. The subcontractor ignores the new method in favor of the one they know to be right. Later, the general contractor informs the sub it has to redo the work because it didn’t follow the prescribed methods.
From there, you can imagine the cycle of events that follows. And, even after the sub and the contractor go around and around with whys and why nots, there comes the time when the dispute grows into a problem affecting more than just the sub’s work. If things don’t get ironed out, relationships suffer, the project suffers and those involved in the dispute suffer.
According to an article in Men’s Health, being right goes way beyond the norms for some people. There is a simple test though to see whether your quest to be right might be extreme and setting you up for disputes.
Are You a Right-aholic?
Think about the last time you apologized for something. Therapist Karyl McBride, Ph.D. says it’s a red flag if you can’t think of a time. To understand your motivations just pay attention. When you find yourself disagreeing with someone, ask yourself if you’re doing it to avoid blame or to make yourself look good, advises Wendy Behary, founder and director of the Cognitive Therapy Center of New Jersey. If it’s either of those, she advises to change the subject, or acknowledge you disagree while also saying you hear the other person’s point.
If you find yourself in a group setting and everyone around isn’t invested in your current debate it might be wise to just let the debate end. Try being a spectator, while others work on their own need to be right.
Disputes eat up a huge amount of project value and it not just the big disputes related to claims. Any dispute robs energy and resources. And, when the reason for the dispute is largely because egos are busy trying to win, the project, and everybody else loses.
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