Your Behavior Matters

June 19, 2014 — 46 Comments

We’ve all heard the expression that you shouldn’t ever judge a book by its cover, and I for one, tend to agree with this expression. I will admit that I DO judge a book by the cover but since I am generally an open-minded sort of person, this “judgment” doesn’t normally have a negative or lasting aspect to it if I were to miss on my initial assessment. But what happens if we were to extend the analogy to reading the jacket … is it fair to judge a book based on the authors own description of the book?

I’m going to say “yes” on that one.

Small Firms Roundtable Interview with Bob Borson

I recently did a video interview as part of an ongoing AIA Small Firms Roundtable series. In it, one of the questions I was asked was “Tell us a short story about one of your biggest challenges.” Obviously they don’t know me very well, I don’t tell short stories … I’m more of a “tall tales” sort of person because I’m prone to hyperbole. However, in this case the story that came to mind, the one that I associate with one of my biggest challenges, happened many, many years ago when I was still in my early 30’s. For the most part, the only bumps I had experienced in my career at this time had more to do with boredom than anything else.

Reflecting back on it now, I think it’s interesting to tell young folks that they will learn far more from negative experiences than from positive ones. I had a commercial project that I inherited when I started working at a new firm that had just started construction. It was a publicly bid and awarded project and I had no knowledge of this particular construction company. Once the project got underway, it became obvious that the selected construction company had badly underestimated the total cost of the project and as a result, they spent the next two years during construction picking every possible fight they could to try to make up the difference.

Pretty much every time I saw the owner of the construction company, he told me he was going to sue me, that he would crush and bury me while laying ruin to my career … He actually called me “son” every time he told me all the ways he was going to wreck my life.

It sucked.

It didn’t help matters that the construction company went through 3 project managers and 4 or 5 project superintendents during this project – every time I would make some headway into creating some goodwill between us and the contractor, that person would get fired, or simply disappear. The project was constantly delayed for one reason or another, the contractor sent in over 400 RFI’s (Request’s for Information), there were weekly meetings … it seemed that their strategy was to bury me in paperwork until I broke.

They never did break me but the entire process was incredibly stressful, I lost a lot of sleep and weight while freaking out over this project … I hated it and I wondered constantly why karma had decided that I needed some massive cosmic smack-down.

Going through this experience fundamentally changed who I was and how I did my job. It was also the best thing that has ever happened to me in my career. I was once told by my father-in-law that I would make a great contractor. Considering that he was a construction manager himself and had run projects as large as $730,000,000 (yes – that’s closing in on a billion), if he’s talking construction, I should probably be listening. Did he give me this accolade because of my insight into the construction process? Maybe it was because my knowledge of materials and methods is superlative? What exactly was it about me that warranted him telling me that I would make a great contractor?

…… it was because I’m good at yelling at people.

He had heard me yelling at someone I was on the phone with during one of our trips to visit and apparently I had just the right balance of condescension, irritation and authority in my voice.


You are no longer the victim, you are the problem. People don’t look to you for solutions, they look for ways of working around you.


The truth of the matter is that I don’t really like to yell at people anymore … for any reason. It just isn’t productive, doesn’t accomplish anything, and makes every step for the remainder of the project infinitely more difficult. Sometimes a contractor responds better to the yelling but it just isn’t for me. It was during this time in my career, when everything was going wrong and I was constantly under attack that I learned how to handle myself. I was able to see from the contractors behavior, how yelling and picking fights did far more damage than good.  When all you do is yell, holler, point fingers and blame everybody else, people stop listening. You are no longer the victim, you’re the problem. People don’t look to you for solutions, they start working around you.

In the end, everybody saw that the character of the contractor was pretty much aligned with his behavior, he was acting like a jerk because he was a jerk. You will be judged for how you act, your behavior matters.

Keep it together people –

Bob AIA signature


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even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • Geoffrey Cavalier

    Could you tell me the general hierarchy for the construction side of buildings? Contractors, sub-contractors, etc…

  • Marcel Vatasescu

    So you bring more proof that architects are not boring… why, they
    downright philosophically intelligent, behaviorally savvy individuals, judging by the comments in the thread 😉

    Bob, the more I dig into your blog, the more I like it (and subsequently the substance of the person behind it). Excellent post and lesson to be learned, remembered and shared with everyone that touches our lives.

    Myself a temperamental character, I’ve learned the hard way that “sweet talk reaps much reward”, as the folk saying from my native land goes. Being able to distance oneself from the emotional content of one’s interaction with fellow humans, and/or not react to it accordingly, is a true sign of inner personal evolution. And it certainly makes a world of difference in our professional daily lives.

    Attitude, especially the bad temper, aggressive one, engenders corresponding reactive perception in us and others instantly because it acts directly on the emotional being, whether we are aware of it or not. That part of us is way, way faster than our mind’s ability to grasp, quantify and qualify the intent behind it. And it hurts, whoever the recipient is. That instant hurt (or comfort, hopefully) becomes opinion.

    They say perception is reality. Methinks that’s why there is only one chance to make a first impression. We need to strive to be balanced and non-aggressive towards others, and it’s not always coming easy, regardless of one’s psychological type, but we must make civility an aim.

  • A. N.

    Wow Bob, long time lurker here but this one really hit home for me!

    A few years ago while doing my first solo design job (residential design/drafting) I had a similar run-in with the owner’s accountant who was “acting”– a very appropriate description in this case– as the GC for my elderly client. Long story short I was on site when I discovered a fairly minor discrepancy between existing conditions and what information I had been provided. “No big deal, I’m here now so we’ll take new measurements and update the plans accordingly” (only initial excavation had been done at this point)… or so I thought.

    This guy LOST it! He started with demanding I apologize, warning me not to get into a “pissing match” with him because I’d regret it in every possible way, and blamed the whole thing on me. I calmly attempted to explain that it wasn’t a serious issue and we would fix the (HIS) mistake right then and there with no harm. But he wasn’t having any part in that. No sir, suddenly I’m calling him a “liar” and defaming his “good name in [that] town” and I’d better drop the tape measure and get my “a$$” over there to start apologizing. I glanced over at my client and I could see he was embarrassed, let alone ashamed of the behavior he was witnessing. I knew then there was no good way out of that situation so I did the best thing I could think of at the moment. I looked back at the guy and said “Guy With Anger Issues (names have been changed to protect the guilty), I think it’s best I leave now and give us both a chance to cool down, then we can discuss a solution for moving forward in our client’s best interest.”

    So as I start my way toward my car he lunges toward me, blocking my way. “Then I want my money back NOW”, he demanded.

    “I’m sorry Guy With Anger Issues, I didn’t expect to be cutting a check on this visit so unfortunately I don’t have my checkbook.”

    “Well, this is MINE then”, he shouted as he slammed his fist down on the hood of my car.

    At this point I was able to slip into the driver’s seat as he stood there seething. As I settle into the seat and fumble for the keys he continues his barrage of insults. I mean this guy literally through every textbook rage spew you could imagine: “You’ll never work in this town again, I’ll ruin you, you don’t know who you’re F^%#*&% with, I’m gonna own you’re wife (yea, he actually went there) buy the time my lawyers are through with you”, etc.

    Again I said “just give me a call when you’ve cooled down a bit and we can work it out.” Nope.

    “You’re not going anywhere!” he screamed as he walked around to the back of my car to block my exit, “this is MY CAR NOW and you’re gonna get out and face me!”

    It was at this point I realized I was out of options for ending this situation amicably, so I conspicuously pulled out my cell phone, raised my hand through the open sunroof of my car and dialed 9-1-1 on speakerphone. As the operator came on the line I saw his face instantly change from rage to ghost white fear through my rear view mirror. I quickly explained my situation to the operator and as I’m telling her there’s an angry guy blocking my exit I hear him exclaiming (and stepping out of the way) “aw come on, really, I was just trying to get you to talk to me”. I tell the operator he has moved and drive away as she let’s me off the line, after ensuring I was clear from the property.

    “What I nightmare that was” I’m thinking as I drive away, my heart still pounding and hands shaking from the adrenaline. I was literally in shock and disbelief at what had just happened. Not 3 miles down the road my phone starts ringing and of course it’s Angry Guy so I let it go to voice mail. I was in no mood to talk.

    About two hours later I get home and not only do I have a voice mail from this lunatic apologizing for his behavior and how he shouldn’t have let his temper get away from him, there’s also an email from him stating the same. It was clear this guy had some serious anger issues that were way past a bad temper, but like I said it was my first solo job and not only was it important for me personally to see it through, but I felt sorry for my client and how he must have been feeling.

    So I call Angry Guy up the next day and after hearing his emphatic apology again I explained that I was willing to finish out the project but at the first sign of another episode like that I’m walking away and we’ll let the attorney’s sort it out. In hindsight I suppose I should have seen something like this coming based on the horrific scope creep I endured, the endless hours of explaining simple construction details (he assured me he had built dozens of houses but just not in this area…right), and the Sunday night voice mails demanding I respond immediately to his questions that were soooo urgent.

    I did finish out that job and as soon as it was over I wrote that guy off the face of the planet for any future work, despite his insistence on wanting me to do the docs for his and his son’s homes. Sometimes the money’s just not worth it, and in this case that was the most stressful, ulcer inducing, sleep losing $500 I had ever earned. Lesson learned: know when to fire a client and do it without hesitation.

    Sorry I know I said long story short at the outset but I’ve never told anyone this story and it felt really good to get it out. Thanks for keeping up such a wonderful resource and I’m looking forward to more great posts!


  • Vishal

    thanx for sharing.

  • Eric Lam

    Closing in 20th year of practicing architecture, your words really bring back some really bad memories which is a good thing. It makes me enjoy more of the work that I do now then ever before because these type of experience can strengthen your character if you know how to handle it.

  • Bamgbopa Folarin

    well said, i cant agree more

  • Manuel Moreno

    Bravo. . .

  • Joe Diaz

    Bob, thanks for the insight. I’m new to your blog and I’m really enjoying it. Keep posting

  • TradeKnit Media

    Excellent read. Character should be a topic in all fields more often than it is. I appreciate this post; keep them coming!

  • Mark McSwain

    Good post Bob.
    My behavior affects other people. I can’t control other people but I can control myself. I always have a choice in how I respond. I strive to “respond” as opposed to “react”. Easier said than done sometimes. In my earlier days, I was very good at reacting and I too had my share of shouting matches with contractors, inspectors and even my own boss…amazing that I didn’t get fired. What seems to help me a lot these days, in addition to what I already said is letting go of “the need to be right”. There is no such thing as a perfect set of documents and there are always solutions. Taking a step back and saying “let me review this in the office and I’ll get back with you” gives me time to research and provide appropriate solutions. And if I’m around someone who is yelling, I absolutely have a right to walk away. I feel very grateful for the clients, contractors and consultants that I currently work with on a daily basis. I haven’t experienced any yelling in years.

    Maybe it is me that has changed…

    • Age, like time, takes the edge off all things that remain.


  • Been There, Done That

    As a woman in a male-dominated profession (not architecture), I strongly feel that more than just ‘taking the high road,’ that women, in particular, need to hold their ground and we do not have training or role models to know how to act in situations where the older, larger, more-experienced males don’t listen to us. I replay this following scenario often as to what does it mean to be assertive.

    Scenario: A wife asks her husband to take out the recycling bin before the collection truck comes and he says, “I’ll do it after my shower,” knowing that the truck is just
    three houses away.

    Wife’s passive response: “OK, honey. No problem.” She knows the truck will pass by and their recycling bin will remain full for another week.

    Wife’s aggressive response: “I’ll do it myself! Just make sure you don’t ask me for any favors!”

    Wife’s counter-passive-aggressive response: “Fine.” When her husband is in the shower, she runs all the hot water in the house, knowing this will give him an ice cold shower.

    Wife’s assertive response: “I’d like you to do it now before the truck passes our house. I can see it three houses down the road. If you shower first, you’ll miss the pick up for the week and then you’ll have to take it to the dumpster.

    That parallels what your FIL recognized about you being good at ‘yelling’ at people. Hold people accountable.

    • I feel sorry for the married couple in your example – they have issues!

      In your example – and in all situations relevant to this topic – I think you need to consider the intent behind the behavior.

      If it’s the husband’s intent to stall taking the trash out, knowing that the truck is just a few houses down, so that either the wife will do it or that he won’t have to do it for a few more days, that’s a different sort of issue to deal with. If the wife thinks that’s the game the husband is playing, she could “change the game” by phrasing her request differently to “Could you take the trash out now since the truck is only a few doors down?” There’s nowhere for the husband to go with his response other than a yes or no. If he says “yes” there’s no passive/aggressive response needed (which all husbands will appreciate). If he says no, this needs to be a conversation about something other than taking the trash out.

    • Inna

      As a young woman in architecture, I completely understand this analogy. Not being viewed as a professional and not being taking serious by contractors is an attitude I consistently encounter on the construction sites. There are exceptions, of course. It is easy to get frustrated. My goal, though, is to maintain peace with everyone and not let others ruffle my feathers. I am learning to communicate my expectations clearly and assertively. I find that male counterparts generally do not experrience supercilious attitude from others in the industry quiet as much, if at all. Females generally can relate. So far I have found that a professional road is paved with many bumps and requires a healthy level of self-confidence, a sense of humor, focus and determination.

  • Been There, Done That

    I agree that yelling and pointing fingers does no good… however, there are bullies and manipulators out there who play their games and they need to be called on it. Because they are aggressive, passive-aggressive, aggressive-aggressive, they run rough shot over everyone in their way. The only way to answer them is to be assertive, assertive, assertive, and to show them their games are over.

    • if you never play the game and the techniques don’t elicit the desired response, those people generally start looking for other tactics to try and get their way. Eventually you have to find a way to get through your situation – these days, I always choose the high road, it’s an easier position to defend.

  • Alexandra Williams

    Dang, there goes my plan to be a jerk when I get older.

    • “when”??

      (that was way to easy …)

      • Alexandra Williams

        You hesh up!

  • Mubeen

    Absolutely, behavior matters, being calm and collected is necessary during such trials. As an architect, I frequently interact with contractors and owners, and have seen certain cases where the actual construction costs exceeded preliminary project estimates particularly when scope of work increased while work was underway. Anyway, I was wondering though as to why the owner of the construction company needed to yell at you for? They had under estimated the cost, not you, and you as the architect, had nothing to do with the estimates. Didn’t the client/owner of the commercial building intervene at any point?

  • Oh man, we have a bad rep in construction for yelling as a motivational tactic. It doesn’t work. 🙁 Thanks for telling your story.

    • It does seem to be a contractor trait – but I honestly get it. The construction industry is a great place for people to find work and more times than not, a large chunk of the guys that work on projects received their training in the field and their realm of knowledge (where it pertains to the entire project) is extremely limited and we aren’t all fighting the same battles nor do we all have the same goals. Learning to remember that fact puts things under a vastly different set of circumstances and as a result, an individual’s behavior typically follows suit.

  • Tim Barber

    “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”
    Mama said “There is no excuse for treating someone rude.”
    “You can’t change people, all you can do is change how YOU deal with them” – Tim tells his children

    I don’t get angry with people even if they are jerks because I believe the angry is detrimental to me. Angry eats at your soul and affects your emotional and physical well being. Why should you suffer when the jerk who caused the problem doesn’t give a damn? I just consider “the situation” a bump in the road of life and try to resolve the problem as efficiently and quickly as possible, then steer clear of the jerk in the future.

    • That’s a healthy way to explain it – I’m going to try and follow that advice. Despite the fact I don’t yell at people (I’m honestly rarely in the position to need to do so) I does bother me considerably when someone is unhappy, even if it is something outside my purview.

      This is something for me to work on – thanks Tim.

  • Kim

    I needed to hear that and need to start being better at it. That is my goal anyway!

    • sounds like a worthwhile goal to me – best of luck!

  • AlmostJane

    Amen and hallejuah. This is almost verbatim one of my dad’s perennial mantras – and heard 1000s of times when I was growing up. Anyone can yell, scream, jump up and down. People do it all the time – it takes no skill whatsoever – and it usually doesn’t work. But it DOES take real skill and thought to present your own argument, point of view etc calmly and rationally. And that almost always works.

    • I will admit that it’s incredibly difficult to stand there calmly when someone is in your face yelling at you. I normally let it come out without engaging (it tends to stop sooner) and then I turn on my disappointed face and tell them that we’ll have to work this out later if they would like to take some time. Sometimes this works, sometimes it makes things worse – it’s what make gauging the temperature of the conversation so important.

      Your Dad was a smartie. (not the candy – that’d be a stupid comparison)

  • aMa Architecture Inc

    Yelling hurts my head, and because of that I learned that talking with mutual respect in a calm even tone, throwing in a splash of assertion when necessary goes much farther even if the other person is yelling. And if they keep yelling I typically end the call. Yelling is abusive behavior and highly unprofessional.

    • totally agree – although I don’t talk to people who are yelling when I’m on the phone. Somethings either need to happen in person or they don’t need to happen at all.

  • All kinds of wisdom in this one! (the ‘boredom bumps’ line made me laugh, too) Sounds a lot like how I spent the last 6 years. Thanks for giving me a little perspective on a trying time mixed with a bit of personal growth in my career.

    • absolutely – glad you found it useful!

  • Marianne Brignac

    I’m not an architect but I relate to this post in every aspect of life. So I’m sharing this! Thx!

    • right – this isn’t intrinsic to architects, I think everybody has one of these moments at one point or another in their lives.

      • Marianne Brignac

        With a 13 y/o daughter – this hits home…lol…just u and ur wife wait for all the fun! (and my child is good…-wow)

  • mediator

    Wow. This post couldn’t come at a better time. I recently transitioned to a new job and got handed a project that I was the third project manager on. The Developer/Contractor is a hot head and a jerk and every other day there seems to be a crisis from the home office. I have 13 years of experience so I know to just keep my head down and carry on each day. These experiences build character and we all have to remember to keep it in perspective.

    • if you’re not part of the problem, you’ll eventually be seen as part of the solution. THAT’s the place we should all strive to be and how we (architects) should be seen.

      Good luck

  • Kerry Hogue

    great message Bob. The really great thing about experiences like that is it builds character. And the type of character it builds is entirely up to the individual, and whether you can weather the storm and become stronger and grow from the experience. Most of us that have a few miles, and road rash to go with it, can relate one of those hallmark events/experiences that has had a profound impact on the way we conduct our selves professionally.

    • professional road rash … I am going to start incorporating that phrase into my lexicon.

      I think my Dad would be proud of me for all the times I talk about building character now, it was his favorite phrase when I was a child and he was telling me to do something that I really didn’t want to do.

  • Matthew

    How timely this post is. I have recently inhereted a project which just started construction, and is on it’s second Owner’s rep, 3rd Project Manager, and 2nd CEO. Having worked with some great contractors in the past, I truly believe in a team approach to projects. It is in everyone’s best interest to work together to solve problems when they arise (which they always do). Unfortuneately this is not they way theis project team is going, So I put my head down, do the best I can everyday, take my licks and move on. The motto for the project has been “it is what it is” and in the end it will get finished, the owner will be happy, and I will have done my job. Because I am an architect.

    • good attitude … and good luck. Despite the fact that this experience for me was incredibly valuable, I don’t ever want to have to go through it again. That was probably the single biggest motivator to making sure I didn’t contribute to the problem.

  • Doug Kuchta

    Great post. I think this is very important for all of our younger “architects” and professionals to understand, myself included. It is quite amazing how our personalities and the way we carry ourselves in the work world adversely affect others and the business around us.

    • no doubt. It’s easy to sit in the office and proclaim “that guy’s an idiot!” but it’s a bad pattern of behavior to take on – it starts to impact how you interact with everyone. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes more times than not will change how you interact with them.

  • Nadhrah

    Yep. The more you yell and threaten someone, the less positive results one gets. People are like babies sometimes, the more punishment they receive the more resentful they are. And the more resentful they are, the more destructive they become. Like the sayings that has become a cliche no matter how true it is, balance is everything.

    • Yelling may win the battle but never the war. I’m not advocating that people take on an adversarial role in the building process, just the opposite. Finding a way to make your point without getting nasty will make a difference at some point.