workers in a meatpacking factory; using the appropriate safety communication style is important in every industry

Four Communication Styles for Safety: Which One Are You?

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

There are many ways leaders “show up” for safety. Effective communication is near the top of the list. Leaders show they understand and care through thoughtful, interactive conversations with employees. This includes strong listening skills and authentic responses to issues that arise. This is the essence of empathic communication and is vastly different from these maladaptive patterns: dominant, passive, and passive aggressive (adapted from Brounstein, 2001). A brief review of each style is provided below. Which one best reflects how you lead and interact with your employees?

Dominant communicators believe aggressiveness is more effective than diplomacy and often think those who disagree with them are either disloyal or misinformed. This leads to a variety of dysfunctional behaviors including bossiness, blaming others when problems arise, criticizing others in public, frequently interrupting others, using aggressive language, and failing to show appreciation for others’ accomplishments. Leaders who use this style provoke fear, alienation, defiance, and covering-up behaviors with direct reports. This damages safe production culture and hinders organizational performance.

Passive communicators may lose employees’ respect by being overly indirect and meek with interpersonal communication. Passive communicators believe you shouldn’t express your true feelings, make waves, or disagree with others. They may also think other people’s opinions are more important than their own. These beliefs often lead to these maladaptive behaviors: remaining quiet even when being treated unfairly, asking permission unnecessarily, complaining to others instead of taking action, allowing others to make choices for them when it’s unnecessary, spending too much time avoiding conflict, and being overly agreeable and self-critical. Employees don’t know where they stand with the passive communication leaders. This leads to frustration and mistrust. Also, leadership credibility is undermined because the passive communicator is seen as weak and ineffective. Open communication is hindered because employees become overly concerned with how comments are perceived or interpreted (i.e., walking on eggshells). This also has negative implications for safe production culture and performance.

Passive-Aggressive communicators are the most dangerous. They believe you should go behind people’s backs to address issues instead of dealing with people directly. They also appear to agree with others when they really don’t, make sarcastic remarks and take subtle digs at others, send harsh messages via email, hold grudges and value getting even, sabotage others, withhold assistance, and criticize after the fact. This leads to increased factions, favoritism, and back-stabbing along with increased gossip, decreased trust, and diminished job satisfaction.

Empathic communicators, unlike the previous three styles, effectively interact with others to maintain healthy long-term relationships.

Empathic communicators believe:

• Personal opinions and the opinions of others are important.
• The process of coming to a decision, not just the decision itself, is important.
• Getting input from others boosts morale and generally leads to better decision making.

These beliefs often translate to these positive behaviors: communicating in a direct, honest manner; communicating using choices instead of demands; acting in a proactive, assertive, and action-oriented manner; maintaining realistic expectations; and achieving goals without compromising others This has the following impact on direct reports:
• Increased motivation to go beyond the call of duty for safety
• Improved sense of appreciation and respect
• Increased levels of trust, respect, honesty, and openness
• Enhanced organizational culture, morale, and performance

The reality is that we’ve all had moments exhibiting one of the three maladaptive styles. The important thing is that we learn from these negative moments and work hard to be more empathic more often. These patterns aren’t set in stone and we can actively improve how we communicate and listen with others. Being an empathic communicator is a key component of leaders showing up for safety and positively influencing others.

At Propulo, we coach leaders to focus on prosocial safety behaviors and avoid pitfalls that derail safety efforts. We can help your leaders stay on track and make step change improvements in your safety performance. For more information on this topic, read about Safety & Safety Culture at Propulo Consulting.


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