Leadership communication patterns

Leadership Communication Patterns: Which Style Are You?

By Josh Williams, Ph.D.

Effective communication is a cornerstone of strong safety cultures. Leaders who provide safety feedback with empathy and respect create a true learning culture centered on trust. Unfortunately, some leaders develop maladaptive communication patterns which weaken their leadership skills. Four key communication patterns for leaders are explained below. Only one, empathic communication, is ideal.

Dominant Communication Style

The Dominant communication style is characterized by overbearing, inconsiderate feedback. Dominant communicators often believe: “I am seldom if ever wrong,” “My opinions supersede yours,” and “People who disagree with me are either disloyal or misinformed.” These beliefs lead to these negative behaviors from the leader:  

  • Publicly criticizing others.
  • Blaming others when problems arise.
  • Acting bossy, negative, and bullying others. (“I told you to quit speeding on that fork truck! I’m not going to tell you again!”)
  • Using verbally aggressive and threatening language.
  • Failing to show appreciation for others’ accomplishments.
  • Frequently interrupting others and finishes others’ sentences.
  • Dismissing new ideas without hearing the rationale first.

The negative effects that the Dominant leader has on others include provoking fear, resistance, and alienation. Employees may hide or cover up mistakes to avoid negative repercussions. This damages morale and prevents the development of a legitimate learning culture.

Passive Communication Style

The Passive communication style is also ineffective and is characterized by weak, indirect feedback. Common beliefs of the Passive communicator include: “Don’t express your true feelings,” “Don’t make waves,” and “Don’t disagree with others.” These beliefs often lead to the following negative behaviors from the leader:

  • Remaining quiet, even when being treated poorly.
  • Asking permission unnecessarily.
  • Complaining to peers instead of taking action.
  • Allowing others to make choices for them when it’s their responsibility.
  • Spending too much time avoiding conflict, being overly self-critical, and being overly agreeable (not sharing true opinions).

The negative effects that the Passive leader has on others include employees “not knowing where they stand” which creates frustration and mistrust. Also, there’s decreased leadership credibility because the passive communicator is seen as weak and ineffective.

Passive-Aggressive Communication Style

The Passive-Aggressive communication style is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s characterized by sarcastic, gossipy, and manipulative communication. Common beliefs of the Passive-Aggressive communicator include: “When you have an issue with someone, go behind their backs to deal with it,” “Get back at others if they cross you, even if it takes a while,” and “Build coalitions against others instead of dealing with people directly and honestly.” These beliefs often lead to the following negative behaviors from the leader:

  • Appearing to agree with others when they really don’t.
  • Expressing concerns about an individual to other people instead of that individual him/herself.
  • Making sarcastic remarks and taking subtle digs at others.
  • Sending harsh messages via email (and copying others) instead of openly discussing concerns.
  • Holding grudges and sabotaging others.
  • Withholding assistance; giving others “the silent treatment.”
  • Criticizing after the fact.

The negative effects that the Passive-Aggressive leader has on others include increased factions, favoritism, gossip, and back-stabbing. This creates an unhealthy culture with low levels of trust, morale, and transparency.

Empathic Communication Style

Unlike the previous three styles, the Empathic communication pattern is characterized by compassionate, concerned, and considerate verbal behavior. Common beliefs of the Empathic leader include: “Personal opinions and the opinions of others are important,” “The process of coming to a decision (not just the decision itself) matters,” and “Getting input from others boosts morale and generally leads to better decision making.” These beliefs lead to the following positive, pro-social behaviors:

  • Communicating with others using choices instead of demands. Getting more employee input and responding effectively.
  • Being proactive, assertive, and action-oriented.
  • Being transparent and realistic with expectations.
  • Communicating in a direct, honest manner.
  • Working to achieve goals without compromising others.
  • Being positive and respectful. Acknowledging people’s experience and skill.
  • Confronting problems as soon as they occur to avoid escalating resentment.
  • Providing more genuine recognition and appreciation.
  • Being open to honest, corrective feedback from others.

The positive effects that the Empathic communicator has on others include increased discretionary effort and open conversations. People who feel appreciated and understood are more likely to go the extra mile to operate safely and participate in corporate safety efforts. This improves culture and helps prevent serious injuries and fatalities.

Take Action

These communication patterns aren’t set in stone. On any given day, we may demonstrate elements of all four styles. However, we can be intentional in our efforts to be more empathic on a more regular basis. Take a moment to reflect and ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Which of these patterns describes your communication style most of the time?
  2. What steps can you take today to communicate more empathically?

At Propulo, we work with leaders to find new ways to optimize personal and organizational safety communication.         


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