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How To Manage Communication Styles In Difficult Times

Communication Styles On A Team

Turbulent times are a stress test for every part of your organization. 

Whether it’s a merger, a round of layoffs, or a pandemic—drastic uncertainty has a knack for revealing everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. And like it or not, you’ll discover the true quality of your team’s communication skills when they’re plunged into chaos.

If your team is bickering, productivity is lagging, or morale is dropping, it’s time to evaluate each member’s communication style. Once you know their preferences and tendencies in the exchange of information, you can determine the best way to proceed.

But first, you need to know why communication styles and over-communication matter during difficult times.

Why Over-Communication Is Key During a Crisis

When work life feels unstable, employees will seek more information in order to achieve a sense of certainty. Unfortunately, when there’s upheaval, many companies tend to communicate less out of fear that they’ll say the wrong thing.

What this creates, though, are anxious employees. In 1991, researchers at the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University put this assumption to the test in a study involving two organizations undergoing a merger.

In the experimental plant, employees received a letter from the CEO informing them of the merger, plus a “realistic merger preview,” which detailed how the merger would affect them—including information concerning layoffs, promotions, and changes in pay. On top of that, employees in the experimental plant gained access to newsletters, a hotline, and regular meetings with the plant manager regarding the merger.

In the control plant, however, information was kept to a minimum, as it has been traditionally. These employees received no additional support or information other than the letter from the CEO notifying them of the merger.

The results? While both plants’ employees experienced increasing uncertainty following the merger announcement, once the realistic merger preview was implemented, uncertainty stopped increasing for the experimental plant employees, but it kept rising for those in the control plant. In the end, the experimental plant’s perceived trustworthiness, honesty, and caring increased to pre-announcement levels, while the control plant’s continued to go down.

When things get tough, employees need their leaders to step up and speak up. During his tenure as Skillshare CEO, Michael Karnjanaprakorn over-communicated to reach alignment, opting to live by the rule of “surprises are OK.”

Shy dog
Uncertainty has a knack for revealing our strengths and weaknesses. Like it or not, you’ll discover the true quality of your team’s communication skills when they’re plunged into chaos.

“It’s impossible to live in a world without surprises or bad news,” writes Karnjanaprakorn. “Whether it’s good news or bad news, don’t wait until the last minute to deliver it.”

So, when in doubt, over-communicate. Now, take it one step further by learning various styles of communication and start exchanging information and opinions with your team members empathetically and effectively.

The 4 Communication Styles and How to Spot Them in Your Team

You can determine your team members’ communication styles and how best to manage them once you know what to look for. Let’s go over the four types of communication styles, how to spot them, and what to do to ensure your employees succeed.

1. Passive Communication Style

Passive communicators struggle to express their needs and stand by their convictions. They hesitate to speak up because they want to avoid conflict. To their coworkers, passive communicators seem easygoing, perhaps even shy.

GIF of man saying 'okay, that's fine'.

Signs of Passive Communication

  • Silence. If there’s a teammate who never speaks their mind, especially during crucial meetings, they might be a passive communicator.
  • Acquiescence. Keep an eye out for anyone on your team who voices an opinion but changes it as soon as someone else has an opposing view. For example, a passive communicator might make a suggestion, but as soon as it’s challenged, might say something like, “oh, never mind then,” or “I’m fine with whatever you want.”

How to Manage Passive Communicators

  • Talk to them one-on-one. 1:1s are a passive communicator’s best friend! Because they’re less likely to speak up when there’s a group around, these employees may feel more comfortable opening up if you speak to them in private.

  • Offer multiple modes of communication. Give passive communicators different ways to communicate their feelings and concerns. Instead of calling on them during a meeting, for instance, send them an email afterward.

  • Help them feel psychologically safe at work. Psychological safety creates an atmosphere where everyone, especially passive communicators, feels comfortable speaking up. It lets your team know that they won’t face negative consequences for voicing their opinion respectfully, no matter how unpopular it may be.

2. Aggressive Communication Style

On the opposite end of the spectrum, aggressive communicators make their opinions known in a straightforward, often blunt way. They’re usually confident speakers and the team members who do most of the talking during meetings, and aren’t shy to express their thoughts on a topic.

GIF of cat and dog fighting

While this may come off as a healthy dose of confidence, you’re likely interacting with an aggressive communicator if you tend to dread interactions with them or feel the need to tread lightly while speaking to them.

Signs of Aggressive Communication

  • Offering the first answer after a question is asked, oftentimes interrupting someone else who was speaking.
  • Persistent and dominant during a conversation.
  • Antagonistic tone of voice.
  • Taking up significantly more time than others during meetings.
  • Overlooking others’ feelings or opinions and moving on to expressing their own.
  • Challenging other people’s opinions without consideration.

How to Manage Aggressive Communicators

  • Outline and enforce boundaries. Aggressive communicators can struggle to respect boundaries, so managers need to outline what is okay and what is not okay. For example, if an aggressive communicator cuts someone off during a meeting, you as the manager need to step in and say, “[Name] wasn’t done talking, so please let them finish, and afterward, we’ll give you some time to speak too.”

  • Give them a safe and healthy way to vent their anger. Placed under pressure, people are more likely to act out. Throw in a global crisis, and you’ve got plenty of fuel for irritability.

Psychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells TODAY,

“While we do see courage and kindness, we also see people who act out in an aggressive, offensive or inappropriate manner, both in-person and online,”

Sometimes, you just need to talk it out. Instead of letting employees vent their frustrations through aggressive communication with coworkers, pull them aside for one-on-one time to address their concerns with you or someone else they trust.

3. Passive-Aggressive Communication Style

Rather than be straightforward, passive-aggressive communicators find indirect ways to hint at their displeasure. They may seem nice to some, but unfriendly to others. That’s because when conflict arises between a passive-aggressive communicator and someone else, the passive-aggressive communicator will avoid directly addressing the problem.

I'm Not Angry GIF

Meanwhile, they may vent their troubles to someone who is not involved in the conflict.

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Communication

  • Cold shoulder: They seem warm and friendly to everyone except for the people with whom they’re in conflict.
  • A tone of voice that expresses displeasure, even when their words seem kind.
  • Heavily sighing, but not verbally addressing their displeasure.
  • Talking to a team member about a conflict with another team member, but not addressing the issue directly.
  • Any misalignment between their words and their actions, body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions. Passive-aggressive communicators may say one thing but act in another way.

How to Manage Passive-Aggressive Communicators

  • Keep your cool. As Licensed Social Worker Signe Whitson explains in Psychology Today, passive-aggressive employees try to get other people to express the anger that they themselves are unable to express.

    Whitson writes,

The very best strategy for dealing with a passive-aggressive co-worker, then, is to understand this dynamic and make a conscious decision to remain calm and professional, no matter what they say or do.”

  • Redirect. If you find a teammate is venting to you about someone who upset them, a great question to ask is, “Have you talked to [name] about this?” Often, with passive-aggressive communicators, the answer will be “no.” That’s when you can encourage them to talk it out with the involved party.

    For example, you might say, “If I were you, I’d bring this up with [name]. Just let them know how you feel. I bet they had no idea what they did upset you.”

  • Model assertiveness. On the flip side, if you find that a teammate is avoiding you or making snide comments under their breath, they might be a passive-aggressive communicator. It’ll be up to you to approach them and ask if they’d like to talk.

4. Assertive Communication Style

Now that we’ve seen the problems associated with being passive, passive-aggressive, and aggressive, let’s take a look at an ideal communication style: assertive.

An assertive communicator addresses problems directly and expresses themselves and their boundaries while maintaining respect for others.

Confident not bossy GIF

“When you’re assertive, you ask for what you need, you talk openly about what you want, and you recognize when someone is taking advantage of you,” writes psychologist Cristalle Sese, PsyD. “You can approach the things you do with confidence and make a direct impact on your environment.”

Not surprisingly, the assertive communication style creates the best outcomes in the workplace. One study published in the academic journal Employee Relations compared passive, aggressive, and assertive communication styles of the managers of 400 employees.

Researchers found that the employees working under managers who used an assertive style felt the most supported. What’s more, that perceived support increased communication satisfaction and organization-based self-esteem, which in turn, decreased absenteeism and boosted job performance.

Signs of Assertive Communication

  • Addressing problems as soon as they notice them, instead of avoiding them and allowing them to get worse.
  • Displaying emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize emotions (in themselves and others) and handle them in a healthy way.
  • Being clear and direct.
  • Willing to ask for help.
  • Actively listening to others.
  • Acknowledging and validating other peoples’ points of view while also being able to explain their own perspective.

Why Communication Is Important For Hybrid And Fully Remote Teams

While remote work has many benefits, one significant disadvantage is decreased access to crucial communication cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. This lack of information can lead to miscommunication and conflict.

When VitalSmarts surveyed 1,153 employees in 2017, they found that those who worked from home were more likely to report that they felt left out or shunned by coworkers. Remote employees also had a harder time resolving conflict than in-office employees.

Thankfully, there are many things you can do to counteract these negative effects and better manage your remote team, including:

  • Regular 1:1 meetings: Having one-on-one time, even virtually, with your direct reports can help them feel seen and heard. It allows you to address any issues directly and provide the support they need.

  • All-hands meetings: Gathering your entire organization into one online space can increase alignment, especially when things feel unstable or fragmented. This is your chance to celebrate milestones, go over next steps, hear updates from each department, and bond as an organization.

  • Shared online workspace: Using an online project management tool like Trello is essential to keeping everyone on your team informed on assignments, project progress, and deadlines.

  • Team building activities: Book clubs, pop quizzes, game nights—you name it, you can probably do it virtually. We even have a team building Trello template you can use to organize these events.

Over-communication during a crisis is important for all teams, but it’s especially important for teams that don’t see each other in-person. By implementing the above processes, you can ensure a better flow of communication.

Difficult Times Call for Assertive Communication

Now that you know the types of communication styles that exist in the workplace, you can better understand how and why your teammates operate the way they do. Remain flexible when assessing your team members’ styles. Not everyone communicates in the same way at all times.

For example, an employee who is normally an assertive communicator may become passive if they’re in conflict with someone whom they find intimidating; likewise, a passive communicator may become aggressive if they’re under a lot of pressure.

The good news is that no one is doomed to a certain communication style forever. With proper identification of unwanted behaviors and guidance from their managers, employees can work to become better communicators.

During difficult times, managers can provide support by modeling assertive behavior themselves, bringing peace and stability to their teams in a time rife with uncertainty.


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