Building better AEC teams by leading with emotional intelligence

What’s the key to building high-performing teams where people feel valued and motivated from start to finish? Brent Darnell says the answer lies in leveling up our emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and manage one's own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. It encompasses self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

In this episode of Spill the Ink, Michelle Calcote King sits down with Brent Darnell to discuss how emotional intelligence impacts culture and success in architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms. With over 20 years of experience coaching AEC professionals on the matter, Brent shares valuable insight and actionable advice to help firms improve their leadership, project and operations.

Here's a glimpse of what you'll learn

  • What is emotional intelligence?

  • The role of emotional intelligence and people skills in addressing challenges within the AEC sector

  • Techniques and strategies that AEC leaders can use to foster a positive work culture and promote mental wellness

  • How technology is affecting relationship building and collaboration in a professional setting within the AEC industry

About our featured guest

Brent Darnell is a pioneer in bringing emotional intelligence to the construction industry. He began teaching emotional intelligence in 1999 and continues to help AEC professionals today through his company Brent Darnell International. In 2012 he was awarded Engineering News-Record’s Top 25 Newsmaker’s award for his record-breaking program that “transforms Alpha males into service-focused leaders.” In 2017, Darnell also won the volunteer of the year award for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Georgia for his work in training and development.

Darnell is a third-generation construction professional. He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech in 1981 and spent 18 years managing projects, such as the Brooke Army Medical Center and housing for athletes in the Olympic Village in Atlanta. Darnell is also a published author, seasoned speaker and adjunct professor at Auburn University, Penn State University and Virginia Tech.

Resources mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by Reputation Ink.

Founded by Michelle Calcote King, Reputation Ink is a public relations and content marketing agency that serves professional services firms of all shapes and sizes across the United States, including corporate law firms and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms. 

Reputation Ink understands how sophisticated corporate buyers find and select professional services firms. For more than a decade, they have helped firms grow through thought leadership-fueled strategies, including public relations, content marketing, video marketing, social media, podcasting, marketing strategy services and more.

To learn more, visit or email them at today.


[00:00:00] Brent Darnell: We talk a lot about creating that trust and understanding the other person's point of view. That's important with these collaborative project delivery methods. Even design-build, design-assist, CM at-risk, those are all more collaborative project delivery that, again, you have to have these skills to be successful.


[00:00:23]: Welcome to Spill the Ink, a podcast by Reputation Ink where we feature experts in growth and brand visibility for law firms and architecture, engineering, and construction firms. Now let's get started with the show.


[00:00:40] Michelle Calcote King: Hi, everyone. I'm Michelle Calcote King. I'm your host and I'm also the principal and president of Reputation Ink. We're a public relations and content marketing agency for architecture, engineering, and construction firms and other professional services firms. To learn more, go to 

Regardless of your job title, if you work in the AEC industry, you're expected to collaborate with other people to deliver successful projects. What's the secret to building high-performing teams where people feel valued and motivated from beginning to end?

In today's Spill the Ink episode, we're going to talk about emotional intelligence and how it impacts culture and success in AEC firms. I have the perfect guest to talk to me about this topic. For more than 20 years, Brent Darnell has been teaching industry professionals how to build critical people skills and leverage emotional intelligence to improve their leadership, projects and operations. He's the owner of Brent Darnell International, an author and a seasoned speaker. His programs and courses on emotional intelligence span the globe and have helped companies of all sizes. 

Welcome to the show, Brent.

[00:01:52] Brent: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

[00:01:54] Michelle: I'm excited to talk about this. If you don't mind, I gave that brief intro, but how did you get into this niche area in terms of teaching these people skills and emotional intelligence in the architecture, engineering and construction industry?

[00:02:12] Brent: First of all, I'm a construction guy. I grew up in the construction business. My dad started as a carpenter. We moved around a lot to different projects, so I grew up in the industry. Then I went to Georgia Tech. I graduated as a mechanical engineer, so I have that background as well. I started mostly in MEP coordination and then got into project management. I did that for about 20 years. 

Then I had this opportunity — I was working for Skanska at the time, big Swedish contractor — and they wanted me to run this leadership program for them out of Sweden. I did that for a couple of years. It was really amazing program.At the end of the two years, they said, "Okay, we're doing something else. Go back to Atlanta." They weren't really interested in the leadership stuff. This was in 2001. They just said, "We want you to go manage projects again." I really didn't want to do that so I started my own business. I saw a need there. We used emotional intelligence the second year of this leadership program that we did and it was amazing. It's something that really resonated with me. I started my own business January 2002 and I've been doing this ever since and never looked back.

It's had its ups and downs, but mostly, if you see where the industry's gone from early 2000s, it's become much more collaborative, much more relationship-driven with Lean and IPD and all these collaborative project delivery methods, so there's a different set of skills that are needed. It's come to where these are have to have skills not just, wow, it'd be nice to have those, but you have to have them to create great projects now.

[00:04:03] Michelle: Yes. That was actually going to be my next question, is what are the particular challenges that the AEC faces that make emotional intelligence and people skills so important?

[00:04:18] Brent: Look at the collaborative nature. What's the percentage, I'm wondering, on just design-bid-build projects? They're really diminishing. It's all about relationships and trust and collaboration and sharing risk and sharing reward. That takes all the stuff we're talking about. That takes people skills. It takes emotional intelligence. It takes self-awareness and empathy and how to communicate and connect and create that trust in a really tangible, real way.

We talk a lot about creating that trust and understanding the other person's point of view. That's important with these collaborative project delivery methods. Even design-build, design-assist, CM at-risk, those are all more collaborative project delivery that, again, you have to have these skills to be successful.

[00:05:18] Michelle: Right. I can imagine it's becoming more top of mind with owners as well as they struggle with the labor shortage, recruiting, keeping the best people. Do you often hear that? Do they start with a, "Hey, how do I keep the best people that I have and how do I attract the right people?" Is that often a goal that owners are talking to you about?

[00:05:44] Brent: Totally. To me, there are three main areas where this whole human connection, respect for people, emotional intelligence comes into play. It's workforce development. How do you attract and retain great people? How do you get younger people to come into the industry? Then we've also got diversity, inclusion, equity, belonging. That's another issue that's driven by ability to connect, ability for that human connection and respect for each other. Then I think the mental health component as well. It's the ability for these hyper-masculine work environments and hyper-masculine folks to be vulnerable and to really overcome that stigma around mental health and well-being.

All three of those, to me, fundamentally, the foundation is emotional intelligence. The other thing we talk a lot about in these programs that we do is peak performance. Peak mental, physical, emotional performance, well-being. We talk a lot about nutrition and stress and sleep and exercise and how you manage all that with these crazy work schedules to have your peak level of mental, physical and emotional performance, and longevity. You don't want to develop some autoimmune disease or mental health issue that's going to force you to not be able to work in this industry.

[00:07:12] Michelle: Yes. It's interesting you brought up mental health. My company focuses on two industries, AEC being one and law firms being the other. Mental health is widely discussed in the legal industry. I think that stems from lawyers having some of the highest depression and suicide rates. It's been a known factor. I don't hear it talked about as often in the AEC industry. Do you think that's changing with COVID and all the attention around mental health? How can AEC firms help employees with this issue?

[00:07:54] Brent: It is changing. There's a couple of people that come to my mind: Cal Beyer, Sally Spencer-Thomas. They're really out there talking about this and reducing the stigma around it. We have the second-highest suicide rate of any industry.

[00:08:10] Michelle: Wow.

[00:08:10] Brent: Construction.

[00:08:11] Michelle: Wow.

[00:08:12] Brent: Suicide kills five times more people than all construction-related accidental deaths.

[00:08:17] Michelle: Wow.

[00:08:18] Brent: It's a problem. It's a big issue and so we have to start talking about it, number one. Then, like you said, we have to give the resources to the companies to be able to support those folks that are struggling. There's an organization called Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The website is You can do risk assessments there and get collateral material, and all the hotlines to give to people and start the discussion. We've created a program we call Primal Safety which focuses on all these lifestyle choices and emotional intelligence and human connection.

We've created something called the Primal Safety Coloring Book which it's a really cool coloring book. This kid, they leave him at grandpa's, and the whole family works in construction. It shows how they stay safe throughout their day, but it also mentions things like mental health and nutrition and sleep, and all those things. At the end of the day, they come home safely to the kid. It's in Spanish and English. All of our profits from that goes to the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

[00:09:29] Michelle: That's great. What are some of the factors that lead to the construction industry having the second-highest suicide rate?

[00:09:37] Brent: I think the demographics are there. First of all, it's a really highly stressful job. There's a lot of uncertainty around pay. If you have a bunch of bad weather, maybe you don't get paid. There's very little benefits unless you're in a union environment. There's very little vacation, healthcare, employee assistance programs. We just don't have the support for our workers. They've become commoditized; and they're usually lower income, they don't make the money that we probably should be paying them, so they're struggling. They may be working other jobs. They may not be getting enough sleep.

That plus the hyper-masculine work environment, can't be vulnerable, can't ask for help, can't be struggling. Plus there's a typical emotional profile for most field people and superintendents. It's really high assertiveness and independence, which you would imagine to be true, but lower emotional self-awareness, lower empathy skills. Think about it that way. You're not understanding your own feelings, but also you don't understand the feelings of others. You don't have the ways of looking at those nuanced changes in people that may indicate mental health issues and have those discussions with them because you just don't have the skills to be able to do that. It's a perfect storm.

[00:10:56] Michelle: That makes sense. Yes, perfect storm. That's what I was thinking, yes, that creates that problem. You had some questions on your website that were fascinating to me. I think the lead was “How many of these questions have you asked yourself?” I know you're talking to that AEC firm leader, but one of them was, “Why is our company filled with middle-aged white guys?Where are the women and minorities?”

[00:11:25] Brent: Right.

[00:11:26] Michelle: Tell me a little bit how that plays into emotional intelligence and people skills and how you help firms with that.

[00:11:36] Brent: First of all, I love middle-aged white guys. I am a middle-aged white guy. It's not a slam on middle-aged white guys. It's a reality of the industry. I think it comes from, again, that typical profile, lower self-awareness, lower empathy. We're not as good at that inclusion part, that belonging part because it's a very transactional results-driven industry. Again, these aren't bad people. They just don't have those skills honed to the degree where they can connect with others as well as they could. That's what this training does. 

We can improve things like self-awareness and empathy skills that creates better human connection, that creates more of a connection with other humans. That way, you can start having those discussions and talking to people and you can create a more inclusive work environment and really start talking to folks about—

See, to me, the lack of women and people of color in the industry is a symptom of a bigger issue of we just like to be around people that are like us, which is social identity theory. That's just a fact.Also for the industry, it is about those technical abilities, knowing the technical ability and knowledge to be able to be a good builder and build a project, and the human side takes a backseat. If we're going to really be inclusive and really create that sense of belonging, we have to put the human stuff up front. That's what this word does. It flips that. I always talk about every interaction's a human interaction. If you could start there and then get whatever results you need, but start with the human stuff.

[00:13:30] Michelle: I can imagine the fact that you are a middle-aged white guy helps a little bit to relate to a lot of the leaders because that is the demographic makeup.

[00:13:40] Brent: Sure.

[00:13:41] Michelle: That gives you some credibility. This isn't someone coming in that they think doesn't understand them or relate to them. It helps you open up that conversation in a way that someone with a different background might. That's fascinating.

[00:14:00] Brent: It does. It really helps. Also what I've done is I've asked people to help me. Women of color, LGBTQ folks that are in the industry, “Tell me what your experience is.” Then I've created a course around that. We talk about, "Okay, let's recognize our biases, and let's recognize those things, but let's not dwell on those things." Let's say, "Yes, that's a fact. We all have these biases, but let's figure out how can we connect as humans better." That's the whole thrust of what I think we're going.

We can't ignore those things. We have to have those discussions of people of color and women in the industry have a different experience than me or a middle-aged white guy. We have to recognize that and be able to address that in some way, but the recognition is the first step.

[00:14:55] Michelle: I talked to a diversity trainer who had this term he called OWLs, old white leaders.

[00:15:01] Brent: [laughs]

[00:15:02] Michelle: He talked a lot about making it safe for them, too, to have these conversations because I think a lot of people are just scared. They don't know. It feels like there's landmines everywhere so they just avoid it altogether. I thought that was a really intelligent approach.

[00:15:20] Brent: Absolutely. It's so true. There's a book out that's called White Fragility and I think it's done more harm than good. I think the white guys are so afraid to make a mistake that they just tend to distance and say, "I'm just not going to address this because if I say the wrong thing, I can be canceled. I can be fired." It happens and it has happened, and yet we have to have those really difficult discussions to be able to move forward, I think.

It's a balance with that, but the white guys need help and you have to tell them when something's inappropriate or that your feelings got hurt or it's something that really upset you. We have to have those discussions if we're going to change behaviors. If we never make a mistake or we never bring that up that that was a mistake, then nothing will change.

[00:16:17] Michelle: Right. Let's say someone says, "Okay, I want to improve the emotional intelligence of my team." What would be the way you do that? What are some of the methods that you use or the things that people learn?

[00:16:33] Brent: We use a couple of evaluations when we do a full-blown program. It's the EQ-i 2.0, which is one of the oldest emotional intelligence instruments on the planet. It's a validated peer-reviewed instrument, which a lot of these personality tests, they've never been validated scientifically. That's where we start. Then we have something called the Symptom Survey, which is based on physical symptoms. It tells us how your body's working. We look at the results of both of those evaluations and then we see correlations all the time.

I'll give you an example. If we see something, what we call self-sacrifice in the emotional side, which is really high empathy, a lower assertiveness — the opposite of that alpha male thing. We call that self-sacrifice: tendency to put other people's needs ahead of your own, trouble setting limits and boundaries, trouble saying no to people. We almost always see sugar handling as an issue, which means they tend to be carboholics or sugarholics.

[00:17:34] Michelle: Ah, interesting.

[00:17:36] Brent: We work on both of those areas. We'll work on the physical stuff and nutrition and all the things we know that we should be doing, but then for a self-sacrificer, we'll also work on their assertiveness and being more clear in communication and setting some limits and boundaries. We tend to work on both. By the way, we've created a free test that has both of those tests on it. If they go to, you can download. It's called the Ghyst EI Test and Symptom Survey.

[00:18:06] Michelle: Interesting.

[00:18:07] Brent: You can take it and see where you are. It automatically graphs your results and tells you what profiles it sees for the emotional and physical.

[00:18:15] Michelle: We've done personality tests with my team in the past. I would imagine a lot of the benefit is, one, self-awareness. learning more about yourself, but also just gaining that knowledge that people on your team have a different make-up and react differently. Is that what you often see there?

[00:18:35] Brent: Yes. Don't get me wrong, I'm not slamming personality tests. Anything that brings you better self-awareness is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. That's one of the biggest benefits we see coming out of these programs because all of our programs, or most of what we do is a year-long process. It really takes that to be able to create behavioral changes in people because you can't develop empathy in a weekend or a half day or a lunch-and-learn. You have to have some application and coaching and follow-up and reflection and so it takes a long time to do that.

It's about understanding what those different emotional and physical competencies that you want to work on, and then we provide the resources to be able to do that. That's where, again, over time, that awareness becomes behavioral change because we always say awareness alone will not change behavior. Information will not change behavior. If that were true, we would all be pretty awesome.

[00:19:43] Michelle: Right. Absolutely.

[00:19:43] Michelle: That's the truth. You're giving people information and then giving them tools to actually use that information and make changes.

[00:19:53] Brent: Right. There are just activities that you put in for development plan. We have daily application stuff, more long-term stuff, books, all kind of written and performance material, movies. We got apps and websites. People have different proclivities toward how they want to learn so we just give them a bunch of different options and then they can start working on those areas. Over time, the behavior does shift and change.

[00:20:25] Michelle: How have you seen technology impacting emotional intelligence, relationship building, collaboration? Are you seeing technology impact that in any way?

[00:20:38] Brent: You know, it can be very good. I've talked to a lot of tech companies about this. Sometimes technology enables you to hate people faster and with more anonymity.

[00:20:50] Michelle: Right. It's the truth. Yes.

[00:20:51] Brent: Look at bullying and those online things that take place. I'd say those technologies and those project sharing and file sharing and collaborative tools are awesome. They're much better if you start with the human connection part. See, here's the thing. I think some of these tech companies, they come in and they have these great tools and then they fail. They fail because of the human stuff, not because of the technology. Then the people using the technology say, "That technology didn't work, let's try another one." It has very little to do with the technology and everything to do with how you connect as humans.

[00:21:31] Michelle: Absolutely. What about safety? I thought that was interesting to see how emotional intelligence can impact safety. How does it? What's the correlation?

[00:21:42] Brent: Yes. My theory, this is just a theory, that if people care about each other and learn about each other's lives and families, they work safer naturally because they will be looking out for each other and correct each other. In this Primal Safety Coloring Book, at the end we have— Oh, by the way, that's on the resources too. There's a whole list of 52-— Not the coloring book, but it's called the Primal Safety Toolbox Safety Topics. It's not about PPE, it's not about tying off, but it's about how you connect as humans.

One of the exercises is pair up and tell somebody you don't know about your family. Or pair up and tell a story about what it would be like if you didn't go home today. What would that look like?

[00:22:34] Michelle: Interesting.

[00:22:34] Brent: If somebody showed up at your family's door and say, "I'm sorry, but Bob passed away today in an accident and he died," what would the consequences of that be? It's those things where we tap into emotional responses. There's a philosopher named Ken Wilber who said, "Rules and regulations will only get you so far with changing people's behavior. Then you have to go to the next level, which is an emotional response to whatever your behaviors you're trying to change." This gets into the behavioral aspect of how we connect with each other and looking out for each other.

Then also we talk about lifestyle choices. What do you eat? What do you drink? How are you sleeping? Are you exercising? Are you managing your stress? 

I give the example of a guy who wakes up, he's hungover; he has a fight with his wife; he has a flat tire; he's late for work; he rushes in; he's off at the world; he grabs a couple of Red Bulls and a couple of donuts and pops some cold medications or something to jack him up. Then that's your crane operator for the day.

[00:23:47] Michelle: Wow. That is an impactful scenario. 

[00:23:54] Brent: And not to tell people how to live their lives, but tell them the consequences of the choices that they're making in terms of their own personal safety and for the safety of others. We promote good food. Get those horrible food trucks off the site and bring something that's healthy in, and stop giving people frozen burritos that are microwaved for lunches. Get some good healthy food out there and talk to them about how they eat. I don't know how many projects I've been to where there's a massive litter of a bunch of Monster Energy drink and Red Bull cans. If those guys are going on that, that's dangerous.

[00:24:36] Michelle: Yes. Absolutely. It seems obvious, but I can see how it's just an easily overlooked thing because it's probably how it's always been.

[00:24:49] Brent: Right.

[00:24:51] Michelle: It's those kind of things. The other question that I saw on your site that was interesting to me is “Why can't we pass knowledge to our young people?” How does emotional intelligence help with that?

[00:25:04] Brent: I always get the complaints of the baby boomers about the young people, and how they have horrible work ethics and they're lazy and whatever. I think there's a disconnect there, but I think it's an artificial disconnect. I've done several keynotes of the generations and why we're not so different. I think those generational things that some consultants came up with are totally made up.There's no research behind it. All the dates are arbitrary. I think it's just made up. 

Now, there are different preferences in communication; different preferences in use of technology. Those are real things. In the end, if you look at something called self-determination theory, people want to feel like they belong. They want to learn and become masterful at something. They want to be connected in some way.

I think a lot of boomers think, "Oh, they want to be VP in two years and that's impossible. It'll take them 10 years to be a project manager." I say, "Why? Why don't you teach them everything you know and cut them loose and let them go?" Our father said the same thing about us, that we're lazy and we don't have good work ethic. All those things. It's not a generational issue, it's just we— I put up a quote, our children are worse than we are and our grandchildren will be even worse, and it's from like 2nd century BC.

[00:26:43] Michelle: [laughs]

[00:26:43] Brent: This is nothing new. I think a lot of it's made up in our heads and we have to embrace that they do things differently and teach them everything we know. Identify those high potentials, put them on the fast track. Back when it took you 10 years to become a PM, you probably had Lotus Notes and fax machines. You didn't have the power of the entire world and the knowledge of the entire world in your hand. Things are different now. Access to information is different now. We don't need to have those mentor-mentee relationships necessarily in terms of passing on knowledge. What we have to do is, like I said, cut them loose and they'll figure it out.

If I had a group of millennials in a room and said, "Hey, design me a pedestrian bridge that goes from here to here. You have an hour and a half," they would do it. They would find a way to do that. They would access that information. They would get in a Reddit room; they would find some civil engineer in India, and they would figure it out. We don't let them and we have this stigma around you have to pay your dues and it takes time to learn all this stuff. My theory is, why? 

[00:28:04] Michelle: Yes, that's a great point. Business works at a different pace now than it used to. Technology has changed how fast we move and how fast we learn certain things. I even struggle with that feeling— that difference between people 20 years younger than me so I can understand that.

[00:28:34] Brent: Yes. I think, again, it's about human connection and creating that trust and doing a mind dump and teach them everything you know and let them go. In fact, if you put a really young, maybe not really a high level of experience PM with a really good seasoned field person like a good foreman or superintendent, why not? We say, "Oh, they're not ready for that." Just put them out there and see how they do and give them the support when they need it, right?

[00:29:12] Michelle: Yes. That's great.

[00:29:12] Brent: That's my theory.

[00:29:13] Michelle: Love it. This has been a really interesting conversation. I love that you are focused on such an important topic in an industry where I don't hear it as much, but I'm certainly going to dive into some of your resources and start educating myself a little bit more on this topic in this industry. If you can give everyone your website address so that-- I think you said it earlier. Is it Brent Darnell…?

[00:29:39] Brent: Yes. with two Ls in Darnell. Also, I'll just throw out this, if you want to read my book, The People Profit Connection, which is about this emotional intelligence work for the industry, the subtitle is How to Transform the Future of Construction by Focusing on People, it's

[00:30:02] Michelle: Love it. Great.

[00:30:03] Brent: All one word lowercase, peopleprofit. They can download the PDF of that book and put it on their reader.

[00:30:10] Michelle: Fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you for joining me.

[00:30:13] Brent: Thank you.


[00:30:15]: Thanks for listening to Spill the Ink, a podcast by Reputation Ink. We'll see you again next time and be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes.



Featured Guest

Brent Darnell

Brent Darnell International


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