4 Communication Styles in the Workplace And How To Manage Them

Group of diverse hands holding blank communication bubbles

Whether you’re writing an email to a client, interacting with a customer at the cash register, or discussing a project with a colleague, nearly everything you do at work involves some form of communication. As a manager, how you communicate with your employees affects their performance, their attitude, and your relationship, so it’s important to get it right. One strategy for refining how you interact with your employees is to manage based on communication style. 

Here, we’ll outline the different workplace communication styles, explain how to identify them, and share tips for managing employees who use each one. 

What Are Workplace Communication Styles?

Communication style describes how we interact with one another, and it’s different for each person. While one person might prefer to be direct, another might take a more subtle approach. Some people weigh the reactions of others heavily when they communicate, while others think primarily about getting the information across and not about how others will respond.

In addition to varying from person to person, communication styles can also change depending on the interaction. For example, a person probably uses a different communication style with their spouse than they do with their colleagues. 

Some factors that determine a person’s communication style include their level of confidence, tone, word choice, body language, and even volume. 

In the workplace, communication style has a heavy bearing on how colleagues interact with one another and in turn, the quality of their relationships. 

Why Are Workplace Communication Styles Important?

Communication is key to a functioning workplace. We need it to convey information, ensure that work is completed properly, and keep from offending one another. 

The problem with communication is that it’s subjective. Saying “sure” in response to a request might seem totally unremarkable to one person, but might come off as curt and impolite to another. Knowing a person’s communication style can help you understand and anticipate their response. 

In a professional setting, a person’s communication style offers clues to how they interpret and process information. It can help you parse meaning from their words and predict how they’re likely to react after receiving a piece of information–all helpful things for a manager looking to establish a productive relationship with their employees. 

As a manager, understanding the various communication styles of your employees can empower you to give instructions in a way that your employee is most likely to understand, deliver feedback that helps them improve, and ensure each member works smoothly as part of the whole team.  

Related: How to Be a Leader

Main Communication Styles in the Workforce

Passive

Employees with a passive communication style are uncomfortable expressing their viewpoints. They will often minimize their own needs and opinions in order to let those of others take precedence. They have trouble saying no, which can lead to overwork and burnout. 

Though passive communicators get along well with others, their indirect approach can result in them being steamrolled, which can lead to resentment. If passive employees fail to develop a stronger voice, they won’t be able to contribute to the team at their full potential. 

How to identify it

A passive communicator avoids conflict. They’re apologetic and blame themselves even in situations where it’s not warranted (“sorry for so many questions!”). They deny help even when they appear to need it.

How to manage it

With a passive communicator, it’s important to pay attention to their actions over their words. If they’re saying everything’s great with their workload but you’re catching more mistakes in their work, it’s probably a sign you need to help them delegate or work together to decide how to balance priorities. 

As a manager, it’s up to you to help your passive employee communicate more confidently. Ask them open-ended questions and allow them time to respond. Give them ample opportunities to weigh in and step up the frequency of your one-on-one interactions. 

Passive communication isn’t always a negative trait; there are some circumstances where a passive communicator’s deference can be an asset, like when a demanding client needs to feel heard or when two opposing parties need a neutral mediator. 

Passive-Aggressive

Passive-aggressive communicators straddle the line between passive and aggressive. They’ll act passively at the moment during a confrontation, but become aggressive later on, often once the other person is no longer present. 

People who are passive-aggressive communicators say one thing but mean another; responses like “I don’t care” or “do whatever you want” may be used in place of expressing their true feelings on a subject. 

Passive-aggressive communication causes conflict in the workplace because it’s difficult to understand what the person actually thinks or needs. This can create confusion among team members. Employees with this communication style are often challenging to work with because they undermine others and bring down morale. 

How to identify it

A passive-aggressive communicator says one thing now but another thing later. They frequently talk behind others’ backs, make snide remarks or “jokes” that are thinly veiled expressions of what they really think. Look for body language like crossed arms, sighs, and eye-rolling. 

How to manage it

To be an effective manager and keep your team running smoothly, it’s important to nip passive-aggressive communication in the bud. Have a direct conversation with employees who use this communication style, naming the behavior and explicitly stating what needs to change. Set boundaries for behavior that won’t be tolerated, like sarcastic remarks or bringing you petty complaints about their coworkers. 

Passive-aggressive employees may not know how to communicate effectively or may lack the confidence to express their true opinions. You can help them communicate in a more productive way by asking for their input, recognizing them for their positive contributions, and making them feel their ideas are valid. 

Aggressive

The aggressive communicator is the person who always says what’s on their mind regardless of how it will affect others. They feel it necessary to express their opinion about everything, dominating conversations they’re in and striving to have the last word. 

Aggressive communicators like to be in control and can be manipulative, doing whatever it takes to get their way even if it comes at the expense of others’ viewpoints being heard.

How to identify it

An aggressive communicator openly and frequently expresses their thoughts without regard for the feelings of others or collateral damage they may cause. They speak over others in a group setting and use negative communication strategies like placing blame and attacking the individual. 

How to manage it

When managing an employee with this communication style, avoid the urge to mirror their aggression. Calmly deliver clear, specific feedback and keep them on topic during work-related discussions. If their aggression escalates, it may be necessary to involve HR. 

Aggressive communicators are good at selling their ideas and getting others to follow them, so they can make great leaders when their energy is properly channeled. Coach employees with this communication style to express themselves more diplomatically and consider additional resources like conflict resolution training. 

Assertive

Assertive communicators express their thoughts honestly and directly, but with consideration for how their words may impact others. They’re confident yet empathetic in their delivery, seeking to hear others’ opinions in addition to sharing their own. 

In the workplace, an assertive communicator tends to express themselves in terms of “we” rather than “you” or “I” and prefers to find solutions that incorporate input from everyone on the team. 

How to identify it

An employee with an assertive communication style thinks before they speak, using discretion when discussing delicate topics. They’re not shy about expressing their viewpoints but are also comfortable listening to and considering those of others. 

How to manage it

When managing an assertive communicator, don’t beat around the bush. An employee with this communication style appreciates clear and direct feedback. 

Give them the space to work independently and trust that they’ll come to you with issues that need your assistance. Help them feel that their contributions are valued by taking their ideas and suggestions seriously. 

By tailoring your management style to the unique communication needs of your workers, you’ll better understand one another and help a diverse team work together more productively. 

Related: How to Improve Collaboration in The Workplace

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the president of 4 Corner Resources, the nationally acclaimed staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. His mission back then was the same as it is today: to do business in a personal way, while building an organization with boundless opportunities for ingenuity and advancement. When not managing 4 Corner’s growth or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his sales and business expertise though public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Hire Calling podcast.