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‘You need to breathe.’ Meet the ‘rough and tumble’ roofers not afraid of their feelings

A construction company is training its most "rough and tumble" workers in a trendy corporate skill called emotional intelligence.

Danny Henry (right) and his coworker work on the roof of Bellmawr Post Office in New Jersey. They work for EDA Contractors, which has been training its construction leaders to be emotionally intelligent.
Danny Henry (right) and his coworker work on the roof of Bellmawr Post Office in New Jersey. They work for EDA Contractors, which has been training its construction leaders to be emotionally intelligent.Read moreMAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer

Up on the roof, they could tell something was strange.

The question making its way around the crew was: What the hell got into Blackie?

They were talking about Mike Blackie, the foreman managing their team at EDA Contractors. Known for his bad attitude, he was always complaining about other trades screwing him over and lashing out when he was under pressure, which was pretty much all the time. In short, Blackie could be difficult to work with.

His coworker, foreman Joe Weaver, is more blunt. "He was miserable and nasty."

But that day, his crew could tell something about Blackie had changed. He seemed calmer, less fazed by the constant stresses of the day. He was actually smiling.

So what had gotten into this 50-year-old workaholic roofer that was suddenly making his team turn their heads?

The answer had to do with a white-haired, straight-talking former hospital CEO they all knew as Aunt Pat, something called "emotional intelligence," and a whole lot of breathing exercises.

Less testosterone, more vulnerability

Two years ago, Pat DeAngelis got a call from her nephew.

"Aunt Pat," he said, "I'm stuck. Can you help me out?"

By then, Ed DeAngelis was nearing 50 and had been running the construction company he founded, EDA Contractors, for more than 15 years. He had finally gotten the business out of survival mode and could focus on more than just profits.

As he read the Harvard Business Review, he became preoccupied with company culture. Specifically, that his company, and the whole construction industry, really, needed a reboot. It was archaic, he thought, dominated by "too much testosterone." Workers didn't know how to deal with their emotions on the job, and it was hurting their ability to make smart decisions, ask for help, lead a team. The industry, he concluded, needed more vulnerability. It needed Aunt Pat.

Before she started training executives to be aware of their feelings, Aunt Pat was a nurse and then the CEO of Nazareth Hospital in the Northeast. It was a serious illness that made this self-described "strategic turnaround queen" dive deeply into the field of emotional intelligence, a concept that first surfaced in a 1990 paper by two psychology professors who defined it as identifying, understanding, and controlling your emotions. Aunt Pat took nine months to turn herself around, using techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and prayer. By the end of it, she had decided to quit the corporate boards she sat on and devote her life to helping others "tap into the wisdom we all have within us."

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The concept has risen in popularity since then, with countless articles dissecting how emotional intelligence is necessary for business leaders, and a center at Yale focused on the topic. Even the Eagles caught the bug, with owner Jeffrey Lurie hiring coach Doug Pederson for the emotional intelligence Lurie said Chip Kelly lacked (and we all know what happened next). Yet not everyone is part of an "emotional intelligence cult," as Wharton School professor Adam Grant put it. He's warned employers not to base everything on this one skill.

But Aunt Pat says it's been transformative for all the executives she's trained at hospitals, architecture firms, cable companies. They say the same thing after completing the training: "Why did I not have these skills before? I could have been so much more effective." The work she's done at EDA has been the most rewarding, in part because many of these workers had never been exposed to any kind of leadership training.

"That guy right there?" she said, pointing to a man in the parking lot one sunny afternoon at EDA's headquarters in Bensalem. "We got to him in the nick of time. He desperately needs it. He needs to be freed."

Inititally, DeAngelis knew it was going to be a hard sell. It was going to be expensive (he says it's cost him 5 percent to 8 percent of his operating costs) and it was going to take a long time — years, probably. And people were going to fight him on it — not just the "rough and tumble" roofers, but the office folks, too, who were used to the old Ed, the one who was focused on productivity and not any of this touchy-feely stuff, the one who had turned their company into a business that worked on high-profile projects like the new Comcast tower and the Fashion District of Philadelphia.

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But as he looked at his staff of 200, three-quarters of whom are roofers and carpenters who work in the field, he saw how they were "caught up in this bravado of … anger," a quality traditionally championed in the industry. He decided it was holding them back.

The first roofer goes to see Aunt Pat

Blackie didn't know what to make of it when he got a letter in the mail from the owner of the shop he had worked at for almost 10 years, asking him to join the "culture committee."

Huh, he thought, did the bigwigs really want a plain old roofer for what sounded like official office business?

The leadership training for the culture committee was surprisingly personal. Blackie had to look at a list of more than 100 emotions and pick out what he was feeling. He had to figure out what triggered him at work, and how to use breathing to reset when those emotions took over. He learned to think about his team's perspective: How does my team feel when I blow up? When I slam my helmet on the ground?

It did not come naturally at first.

Did they ever talk about their feelings?

"Never," Blackie's coworker Weaver said. "We're bada– roofers."

But little by little, after the trainings and many one-on-one sessions with Aunt Pat, Blackie became a believer.

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The construction workers of EDA are not the first tough men to get trained on the job in emotional intelligence. Around 1997, the men working on a Shell oil rig learned from their own Aunt Pat, a Holocaust survivor named Claire Nuer. Over the course of 15 years, the company's accident rate went down by 84 percent. Two researchers who embedded themselves on the rig said their work showed that "extinguishing macho behavior is vital to achieving top performance."

At EDA, DeAngelis said he can't quantify the impact of Aunt Pat's training, not through dollars earned or nails hammered, not yet at least. But his employees seem happy coming to work. They're more open and trusting; they feel like it's safe to speak their mind. Blackie's no longer barging into his office, throwing his keys on DeAngelis' desk, and threatening to quit. In fact, Blackie said that after a career of jumping from shop to shop every few years, he's finally found the place he wants to stay.

‘Hey, you need to breathe?’

These days, breathing is a common topic of conversation on EDA worksites, like at the Bellmawr Post Office, where Ian Pollini's team is waterproofing a roof.

When Pollini gets stressed, he puts his hands on his head — and his team recognizes that. They'll say to him, "Hey, you need to breathe?"

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Pollini, a deeply tanned 40-year-old with a quiet presence and a full sleeve of faded tattoos, is one of the 55 EDA leaders who have studied with Aunt Pat over the last year and a half. He says he's learned that there's a certain look he can get on his face that makes the guys uneasy because they think he's angry.

"It's not fair to them," Pollini said, if they have to walk on eggshells.

Aside from understanding how your emotions affect your team, Aunt Pat also made clear to him the importance of knowing everyone's name, telling teammates they did a good job, and smiling more — seemingly little things that make such a difference, especially when you're not accustomed to them.

Because of that, some on Pollini's team who have been in the industry for their whole lives can hardly believe what it's like to work for EDA.

Roofer Rich Kinkade, 57, who was raised in a union family, recently asked his coworker, "Do we still work in construction?'"