Communication styles in the workplace - it’s personal

communication in the workplace is practiced by a woman with curly hair and a man with pink hair

Communication skills are one of the most sought-after attributes in the workplace. Still, 57% of employees report not being given clear directions on projects, and 69% of managers are not comfortable communicating with employees in general.

Yet the most common cause of communication barriers is simpler than you might imagine: communication preferences.

If you can't quite seem to master effective communication at work, it might just be the communication style you're using doesn't match the preference of those you're working with.

So how could we make communication in the workplace more impactful and important? It all starts with getting to know your type of communication style, as well as the preferences of the people you work closely with.

Table of contents
What is communication style in the workplace?
What is a method of effective communication style?
What is an example of workplace communication styles?
How to discover your personal communication style
How to uncover your team's workplace communication style
The benefits of face-to-face meetings
How to communicate complex ideas
Communication method: pause for 45 seconds
Should leaders aim to communicate less?
A communication plan for the workplace
How to measure communication in the workplace
The best communication style at work is personalized

What is communication style in the workplace?

Communication style in the workplace is related to individual preferences of communication, which can include assertive communication, passive communication, passive-aggressive communication, and aggressive communication. Other communication types refer to oral, written, and visual communication, as well as verbal and nonverbal communication.

two colleagues talking and using nonverbal communication at work

What is a method of effective communication style?

There is not one approach to rule them all in terms of effective communication in the workplace, but this, from Stanford University, is a good start. They recommend a three-tiered approach:

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?

In practice, it would look like this:

What: “You missed a deadline.”

So What: “This is going to make a few other people scramble for this meeting tomorrow.”

Now What: “I’d like you to help these people and also, in the future, attempt not to miss deadlines.”

This allows managers to frame communication in the workplace around:

  • The actual issue that happened
  • The repercussions
  • Future development to improve it

It fosters a sense of accountability around better communication, which is a crucial bridge for business communication.

What is an example of workplace communication styles?

Sarah works for an insurance company. She appreciates her role as a customer service team manager because she oversees and engages with a team that provides care for members. She provides direct member support for challenging situations when there might be aggressive communication or other difficult conversations take place. She appreciates practical solutions that follow company procedures.

Sarah took the free F4S assessment and found out she scored high in the following traits, which reveal some of her communication preferences and strengths:

  • Non-verbal communication: Sarah is attuned to the tone of voice and other non-verbal expressions which is related to the interpersonal skills that are needed to solve problems, especially if there is direct conflict.
  • Written and oral communication: Sarah's preference for written information ensures she follows the written company policies and procedures easily. Since Sarah has a high capacity to take in information from hearing, she is likely to have great active listening skills, which help her connect with her team as well as the members she serves.
  • Methodical thinking: Sarah prefers to follow step-by-step processes and use standard best practices. This means she can help support her team in following company guidelines.
  • Attention to detail: There is no detail too small for Sarah, which is also related to her strength in methodical thinking. Because Sarah likes looking at details, this will influence how she relays information to her team on a micro-level.
  • Working in a group setting: Since Sarah prefers to engage with others, her ideal work environment includes connecting with colleagues and members. She is more apt to have team meetings to foster stronger relationships while conveying company goals.

How to discover your personal communication style

If you can't quite seem to master effective communication at work, it might just be the type of communication you're using - or the type of communicator your colleagues prefer.

Our research shows 48 common traits that influence your levels of energy and excitement at work, as well as your motivation for specific tasks. All of these impact the styles of communication you prefer and are often the way you communicate with others.

The best way to improve your communication skills is to find out what your current strengths and blind spots are. F4S is a self-development and people analytics tool that can help you better understand your communication and learning style.

To get started, take the free F4S assessment. It's more than 90% accurate and based on 20+ years of research. All you have to do is create an account and answer 40 questions based on how you relate to them at work. You'll gain instant access to the results and uncover the types of communication styles you prefer.

F4S dashboard shows how your workplace communication preferences rank
F4S dashboard

The results are sure to provide insight into what motivates you at work. You might find out you prefer to work on projects where there is collaboration and a shared sense of responsibility. This is a key indicator that you might have a hard time starting projects on your own because you're lacking the energy and expressive communication that happens within a team.

Once you review your results, you'll have the opportunity to set a goal with the help of AI Coach Marlee. You might decide to try the Start Fast coaching plan so you can get more motivated to start projects on your own. Or try our Increase EQ program to develop more effective communication skills.

Our starter plan is always free and includes one coaching program!

Personalized insights for your goal

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You like some variety, radical changes, doing new and different things in some of your work or business.

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How to uncover your team's workplace communication style

If you're having a hard time with team communication, F4S is also a great tool.

With our most popular plan, you can set up a team and invite your colleagues to take the free assessment. You'll be able to see one another's preferences related to methods of communication, as well as shared insights such as your unique team culture, affinities, and differences.

team dashboard shows team dynamics and communication styles in the workplace
F4S team dashboard

Some team members may prefer one-on-one conversations; some may prefer notes in Slack. Some may prefer limited communication except on big projects. Understanding these preferences can ensure that your team is more productive and motivated.

The benefits of face-to-face meetings

In the March 2017 issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, there was a study entitled “Ask in person; you’re less persuasive over email.” The study found that in-person requests or project pivots were 34 -- yes, 34 -- times more effective than those communicated over email or messenger platforms.

There are different channels and approaches that work best for different types of messages. It will vary by person, but at a high level:

  • Complicated processes or career adjustments: These need to happen in-person, or at the very least face-to-face on video.
  • Quick requests and needs: These can happen over email, Slack, etc. but the requester needs to be available face-to-face for additional context or questions when needed.
  • Links, memes, other “content” that flies around workplaces: Slack, emails, and messenger platforms.

It’s helpful to have honest communication by talking to each of your team members and understanding their preferences on both emails and meetings (do they overwhelm them?)

If you have a generally negative team view of one or both, consider using them sparingly if you can, or reserve meetings for very important discussions, so that they have an air of mattering more.

How to communicate complex ideas

Here’s research from Northwestern on how to communicate more complicated ideas, which they ultimately parse into six tools:

  • Data
  • Logic
  • Equations
  • Pictures
  • Stories
  • Participation

This is more about presentations, which are an important aspect of communication in the workplace. The approach argues you need the right:

  • intel/numbers (data),
  • a logical application of that data,
  • some equations (how you arrived at your conclusions),
  • pictures (we are a visual species), stories (those tremendously resonate with our brains),
  • and then involving others in tweaking and discussing the ideas.

There are thousands of pieces of advice about giving better presentations, including “A.I.M.” (audience, intent, and message) or asking more questions of your audience. All can help improve presentations, and ultimately presenters need to find the style and approach that works best for them. But the Northwestern approach above is firmly rooted in the business world ethos of the moment: data-driven, story-guided, and logic above all. Aim for that, and work with your team to present in this way.

Communication method: pause for 45 seconds

After the presentation of a new idea by a member of your team, pause for 45 seconds and respond with respect.

We endorse this approach, although 45 seconds can admittedly feel like an eternity, especially if your specific culture is rooted in decisiveness as a core value. Pause for a time that feels comfortable to you to evaluate new concepts before instantly responding.

The founders of Basecamp summarize the need to pause and reflect well here:

At most companies, people put together a deck, reserve a conference room, and call a meeting to pitch a new idea. If they’re lucky, no one interrupts them while they’re presenting. (But usually, someone jumps in and derails the presentation after two minutes.) When it’s over, people react. This is precisely the problem. The person making the pitch has presumably put a lot of time, thought, and energy into gathering their thoughts and presenting them. But the rest of the people in the room are asked to react. Not absorb, not think it over, not consider — just react. Knee-jerk it. That’s no way to treat fragile new ideas.

One of the recommendations to have more inclusive presentations, pitches, meetings, and team huddles is to start with a written document. Famously, companies like Amazon and Basecamp (where the above quote is pulled from) have done this.

It provides more context on the idea or topic at hand, allows time for reflective thought, and doesn’t lend itself to a “reaction”-driven context where people feel the need to say the first thing that pops into their head. This can improve employee morale and limit negative behavior since there is time for people to process the content individually first.

It’s not perfect, no -- people might rush through the memo, etc. -- but it’s a good approach to being more inclusive around communication in the workplace.

Should leaders aim to communicate less?

That argument has been made, often by pointing to the philosophies of Lao Tzu, who has said:

“The wise leader speaks rarely and briefly. After all, no other natural outpouring goes on and on. It rains and then it stops. It thunders and then it stops…The leader teaches more through being than through doing. The quality of one’s silence conveys more than long speeches.”

There is some validity to this approach. There is a consistent amount of advice and thought leadership on the need to “over-communicate,” and some employees will need that, yes.

But in general, a focus on over-communication can lead directly to micromanagement, or a company can push out too many external resources (blog posts, press releases, studies, quizzes, etc.) that ultimately very few are consuming.

Sometimes silence is golden, and if you trust your team (which ideally you do), the times for over-communication are around bigger, high-level strategic issues. The rest of the time you should aim for a balance that provides a healthy work environment, so as not to overwhelm your team with 24/7 communication that will contribute to work burnout.

Again, your ‘sweet spot’ of communication will vary by the people on your team.

A communication plan for the workplace

a team gathered together for a meeting and is energized because they prefer group settings for communication

Here are few more concepts and ideas to consider if you feel your team isn't communicating well:

  • Talk to each team member about their preferred approaches to communicating.
  • Find out more about the personality types on your team. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a well-known tool that can help.
  • Audit the success of your tech software and comms tools.
  • Identify where communication issues tend to occur:
  • meetings without action items or team agendas
  • specific channels such as email, Slack, or Zoom meetings
  • specific team members

You may need to refocus on how you design meetings, construct emails as a team, or provide constructive feedback to team members.

How to measure communication in the workplace

In terms of measuring how effectively your team communicates, here are some approaches:

Anecdotal observation:

This is less data-driven and scientific, but you can try to pay attention to:

  • how people are responding to different channels,
  • if deadlines are being met,
  • any flare-ups between team members that need conflict resolution,
  • how other departments and teams are responding to your team,
  • what the perception of your team is in the overall organization, and more.

There are a lot of things in a given organization that people “know” but can’t necessarily “track,” and this falls in there.

Turnover reasons:

There has been research over time from SHRM that, beyond compensation issues or bad management, the top reason people leave roles is a lack of communication and clarity on key projects.

When people do choose to leave you, ask them why. Have structured exit interviews. If “communication in the workplace” keeps coming up, you have a problem and need to double down on creating a positive work environment.

Peer reviews:

Ask team members to, anonymously or otherwise, review the communication styles, email etiquette, meeting decorum, and more of their colleagues -- on your team and in other departments. Learn what people think about the communication ecosystem around them. It’s your launch pad for improving the employee experience.

Surveys:

Survey your team members about tools, emails, meetings, memos, communication styles, and more. Try it four times per year and see where the scores land.

A woman in HR reviewing surveys to improve communication

The best communication style at work is personalized

Now that you know there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to communication in the workplace, you can be more intentional with your communication. Get to know your team and try some of the recommendations we shared, then watch the positive progress begin to build.

Uncover your communication style in the workplace

Take the free assessment, uncover your communication preferences, and then become an even more effective communicator with our AI coaching programs.

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