Do you communicate well with coworkers?

Some people are just easier to work with. That's in part because they communicate similarly, but a productive work environment...

Local experts explain how communication styles affect the workplace

By Ryan Wynne

Five years ago, Bellingham Ear, Nose and Throat experienced a bit of internal turbulence. Certain employees at the clinic weren’t getting along.

“We were struggling with conflict within the office,” said clinic administrator Marji Lykke.

And conflict in the office can affect more than employees’ moods, she said. It can also decrease productivity because time that would normally be spent working is spent dealing with or focusing on the conflict.

“My opinion is that it takes every one of us to do this job and we’re all equally important, so if there’s a piece that’s broken, it does affect the whole,” Lykke said.

Management tried to fix the problem, Lykke said, but it wasn’t working. That’s when the company decided to bring in outside help and hired Janett Ott, an organizational and executive coach who specializations in creating effective communication in the workplace.

It’s not unusual for tension to occur in the workplace, but knowing one’s own work style and those of coworkers can foster positive communication and reduce conflict.

“There will always be conflict, but learning how to manage the conflict I think is the key,” Lykke said.

You say potato…

Differences in communication styles, which manifest into differences in behavior, are among the most common causes of workplace conflict, Ott said.

“The essence is, if someone is different than I am, I can find their differences difficult and annoying,” Ott said.

It’s easy to see how conflict could arise from asking people with communication differences to interact regularly and, not only that, asking them to produce results.

Joseph Garcia teaches about these work style differences at Western Washington University. He is the director of the Karen W. Morse Institute for Leadership and the Bowman Distinguished Professor of Leadership Studies at Western Washington University.

Garcia said people have a tendency to reject communication styles they don’t know. Communication differences can lead people to talk past each other or possibly see each other as too cold or too touchy-feely. The way people talk about work — and even the world — can cause confusion and conflict, he said.

People’s communication and work styles are a reflection of how they view the world, and Garcia used the work of authors Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal to explain those different views, which they call frames.

“There’s no one work style it is best to be. The main point is you need all four styles on a team to have a successful team.” Janet Ott, organizational and executive coach

First, there’s the structural frame. A person in this frame would see organizations and their world like a machine, Garcia said. They focus on organizing and structuring groups to get results.

In another, the political frame, people see the world as a jungle, Garcia said. They focus on building alliances, honing political skills, and dealing with power, conflict and politics.

Those in the human resource frame are concerned most with people’s feelings, human potential and empowerment, Garcia said. Their focus is on shaping organizations so human needs are satisfied.

The fourth, the symbolic frame, is one in which people look for higher meaning and celebrate people’s accomplishments, Garcia said. They focus on molding an organization or culture so people can find purpose in work and they try to build team spirit.

People have a predominant frame, but everyone has all of them. And they are all vital to the success of businesses.

“They all are important points of view,” Garcia said.

Why not just put apples with apples?

Bringing people with different communication styles together can be better for business because each style has something to contribute.

“They all have their weaknesses and strengths. There’s no one work style it is best to be,” Ott said. “The main point is you need all four styles on a team to have a successful team.”

Garcia said each work style has a different approach for problem solving, decision making and addressing problems, so having all work styles on a team is important.

As the administrator of an approximately 30-employee clinic, Lykke agrees with this perspective.

“It brings new ideas, new eyes to a situation, things that you wouldn’t think of,” Lykke said.

Imagine for a moment you are an employer with employees who are slow and detail oriented, others who are idea generators, some who are idea refiners and others who are quick and just like to get things done without considering the details.

For your business to be most productive, you would want to put each employee in a position where she or he could be most productive, and you would need them to communicate effectively.

That’s easier said than done. It often takes time for people to warm up to those with differences, and it takes effective leadership beyond “let’s just get things done right away,” Garcia said.

There are a number of tests out there for employers who want to know what kind of worker someone is, and there are teachers like Ott who can do that and teach employers how to create an environment where those different workers are more likely to thrive.

Overcoming differences

Ott teaches her clients how to share feelings, identify their assumptions, deal with conflict, give and receive feedback, have difficult conversations, and how to identify their predominant communication styles — although the four styles she uses are not quite the same as Bolman and Deal’s.

People assess themselves and their coworkers, Ott said. That gives them a better understanding of their own communication styles and those of their coworkers, and a tangible tool they can use to work with others.

Understanding communication styles means understanding what jobs employees like and are better at, how fast they work, what irritates them, how they use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and their comfort levels in different settings, Ott said.

Suppose again you are an employer: By accepting employees with their various work styles, you can put them in positions where they can do the most good for your company. And by teaching employees and managers effective communication, they can work together more efficiently and effectively.

Garcia said respecting and understanding differences leads to a more sophisticated understanding of an organization and allows employees to help move an organization toward its objectives.

Lykke said the training with Ott gave her a better understanding of the dynamics at Bellingham Ear, Nose and Throat. It was helpful and validating for her because she was able to define and quantify her style of communication and her coworkers’ styles, which allowed her to better understand why things at the clinic were happening as they were.

And after some one-on-one time with Ott and an office-wide session with her, the employees who weren’t getting along began to. Feedback from the session was positive and Lykke said everyone enjoyed and learned from the experience.

“It allowed creative communication in that instead of feeling defensive, you could collaborate,” Lykke said.

It also influenced which employees were assigned to certain tasks based on what they enjoyed and were good at, and, in the five years that have passed since the session with Ott, Lykke said it has likely even affected decisions on whom they hire for certain positions.

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