Manager as Universal Adapter – How to Adapt to Different Communication Styles

“Why should I talk to each of my people differently?” fumed Chris. “Shouldn’t I be treating them all the same?”

Yes and no.

As a manager, you’ll be more effective when you adapt yourself to the thinking and communication styles of each of your direct reports.

As a manager, you’ll be more effective when you require your direct reports to adapt to your thinking and communication styles.

Both of these are true.

Consider Alice and Bob, who both report to Chris.

Alice is a born Listener when absorbing information. Send her a memo or email and it’ll go unread, however everything spoken in a meeting (and every voicemail) seems to remain in her mind forever.

And like a lot of Listeners, she processes her own thoughts by talking. As a Kinesthetic Talker she either paces the floor, goes on walks, or talks to — or talks at — a friend, co-worker or subordinate when she’s trying to clarify her thoughts.

Bob is a detail-oriented Reader when taking in new information, and he clarifies his thinking (as both Beethoven and Churchill did) by writing. He fills spiral notebooks with rapid scribbles and never seems to look back at them.

Chris is more holistic and less detailed, and is also a Reader, but clarifies his thoughts by drawing diagrams, mind maps, 2×2 grids, and so on. His white board is in constant use.

When Chris announces a decision, he’ll do so by sending an email (often so brief as to be cryptic) and consider it done.  Chris likes Bob because Bob will email back some salient questions, albeit in a too-long email. Alice irritates him because she seems to ignore the email entirely, and then takes up staff meeting time wanting to “discuss” the decision — but if allowed she’ll argue both sides of it, seeming to change her mind multiple times, and ignoring other people’s comments.

The Normal Response

Most managers in Chris’ shoes will try to nudge Alice to read her emails more closely, and Bob to write shorter emails. Chris might hire his next new employee with an eye on having them be more like himself.

Chris might also try to shut down Alice from “dominating” discussions, or (if he’s a real micro-manager) criticize Bob for taking notes but not reading them.

Almost all of these are a mistake. (Making Alice share meeting time, however, is mandatory.)

People don’t change their nature very much, even as they grow and change throughout life. Peter Drucker advised against attempting to change yourself from a Listener into a Reader or vice-versa — but rather, to learn to accept and adapt your environment and activities to the style you have.  By implication, that means adapting to the styles of others as well.

If Chris expects people to change this part of themselves, he’s doomed to disappointment.

And if Chris starts hiring people “more like himself” he’ll be losing valuable diversity — and he’ll fail to learn how to manage across styles.

A Better Way

If Alice is a Listener, and you want to send information to her, you’ll be far more effective as a manager when you send the email you were going to send anyway — and then leave her a voice mail, or pop your head into her office with a one-sentence summary.  For the Listeners on my staff I might search through my Sent Mail folder looking for their name, and then, during their next One on One I could give them a recap of the major points of things I’ve sent them and ask them for their questions.

Why go to that extra trouble?

Because my goal is not to minimize my work effort — it’s to maximize my effectiveness. When I have a goal, such as communicating to others, the onus is on me to bridge the gap as much as I can.

I can also alert my Listener direct reports to the difference in our styles, and suggest they also reach across that gap when receiving from me — to read my emails aloud to themselves, or use a text-to-speech tool. One Listener I know has her assistant read key emails aloud to her.

Chris could easily give verbal updates to Alice in passing, or even ask her to collect non-urgent emails to discuss with him or with a peer. Since Alice processes ideas by talking them through, Chris could also encourage her to spread out her requests for attentive audiences across the team and her various peers, or to partner up with another Talker and take turns.

Chris’s other better approach is to ask detail-oriented Bob to go ahead and write his detail-rich email responses — and to then go back and write a one-paragraph summary at the top of the email.

Demand Uniform Inputs

But there are limits to Chris’s flexibility — as there should be.

When Chris gets information from his direct reports, he can and should ask for them to come in his preferred style.

A leader who’s a Listener can and should ask for voicemail updates, or verbal summaries at the start of One-on-Ones and team meetings. (Things still need to be written down for posterity. No business can afford to be run on an Oral Tradition basis.)

A Reader like Chris can, and should, require that both Alice and Bob give him inputs that are both brief and in writing. Bob will struggle with brevity and Alice may have to talk to a dictation program, but again we want to optimize for the recipient. The larger the number of direct reports Chris has, the more important for him to receive his inputs in a standard format.

Adapt to Your Boss

Finally, the wise manager adapts to the boss’ style. Chris reports to Delta, a Listener who processes ideas silently. When Chris updates Delta, he’d be wise to give it to her in the mode that’s easiest for her to process.

Not sure what your boss prefers? Ask, or give them both written and verbal inputs and see which they prefer.

These two dimensions — communication style and cognitive style — are part of your Self-Leadership Work Style. Once you know how to manage yourself better, you’ll manage others better.

In order to grow yourself, first you must know yourself. Click here to get your free Self-Leadership Work Style Profile (allow up to 1 week for processing).

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