Is there one single soft skill that is the most important in the HVACR industry? That question is like asking if there is one size air-handling unit or one type of engineered HVAC system that is the best or most important. It all relates to specific situations and our ability to master the variables.

There is one soft skill that is, perhaps, at the root of many others and that is empathy. Empathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings or concerns. Use this skill with every team member and stakeholder on the project.

Having worked on projects on five continents and with teams of various skill levels and ethnic backgrounds, I’ve found one universal truth: When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the pieces begin to fall into place. This is necessary because none of us think we have an attitude problem, though we have no trouble finding attitude problems in others. Do others feel we have an attitude problem? Is it hurting our business? Consider your attitude the most important tool in your toolbox. You already have it. Used well, it can gain you everything. Administer it poorly, and it can cost you everything. How you use it is entirely up to you.

If your company has a high turnover of staff or regularly finishes projects late, and if your employees have a high rate of absenteeism, then chances are you have an attitude problem somewhere in your leadership team. A very powerful CEO once asked me, “Do you find it hard to motivate teams?” I answered: “No, motivating teams is easy. The challenge is to keep management from demotivating the teams.” This does not mean management wants to demotivate the teams. It’s a reflection that management often does not recognize their actions are frequently demotivating when their intent was to be positive.

Empathy can be your biggest ally in resolving some of these problems. For example, our industry often requires excessive overtime, and there is often little time, if any, between projects to address personal issues. In fact, the trend in the industry is that nonmanual workers are now working longer hours than manual workers, often without overtime pay (though these rules might be changing). Manual workers often take off for a month or two to rest, while your nonmanual staff are working year-round. Empathy would help us recognize how our staff is feeling, and we might schedule some half days so they can address personal matters on their own time. We might even use empathy to recognize the families of our workers need some recognition for their sacrifices. That empty seat at the dinner table is also often an empty seat at a little league game or school talent show.

You can use empathy to help your clients. You can even sell this to your clients as a reason to hire you for that next project. Maybe you can use it to gain a tip from your distributor about an upcoming project in your territory. What are your client’s biggest concerns, and how can you alleviate them? Maybe selling your clients on the fact that you’ve designed and/or installed a system that will decrease their operating costs will get their attention. Add in that vibration isolation may prevent their workforce from being distracted by noisy HVAC systems. Clients want someone who understands their concerns and can help them find reasonable solutions.

General contractors have a lot of trades to coordinate. HVAC is often the first trade to kick off mechanical, electrical, and plumbing installations so everyone is waiting on you. Of course, you’re waiting on concrete, steel, and fireproofing, but everyone thinks they’re waiting on you. Are there ways you can find to increase productivity out of the gate so they can get other trades working behind you? Can you install your hangars and tape them before the fireproofing so you can get a head start? Can you give your distributor an earlier heads-up about a need for specialized equipment? General contractors may tell you it’s all about price, but, in reality, they’ll pay a little extra to work with a subcontractor they know will be easy to work with and will clear the path for other trades to work.

How do you get your teams to be more empathetic? This has to be a culture that starts from the top. A change in behavior has to occur to institute change or achieve a goal set forth by management. Many companies have developed great strategies for implementing great plans and laudable goals. Without the change in behavior from management, the culture will not change. Culture will eat strategy for breakfast every time.

Start by observing your employees. Where are their greatest challenges, and can you help alleviate them? Start by asking your general contractors how you can help them get back on or even ahead of schedule. Start by asking building owners what their greatest complaints are with HVAC systems that never result in a warranty call, and listen. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do is stop and actually listen to what someone is saying and doing so demonstrates real empathy. It helps us understand how we can alleviate the fears and problems of those we work with. Often, we find we can alleviate those fears without spending any additional money ourselves. In those cases, we get to add value without adding to our cost. Is there a better win-win than that? Empathy is a key that can unlock many doors. Those doors can lead to your teams performing more proficiently and to more jobs booked at higher fees. Who wouldn’t like to spend less and get paid more?

Publication date: 9/21/2015

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