HR Leader logo
Stay connected.   Subscribe  to our newsletter

Passive communicators don’t lack courage, they lack support

By Kace O'Neill | |7 minute read

Is passive communication something we choose to do? Is it from a lack of confidence? Passive communication can arise from a number of different circumstances, especially in the workplace.

Communication in the workplace is a pillar of productivity. A lot of employees thrive in their communication with one another, but some tend to take a backward step and struggle with finding their voice. Often, these people are labelled as passive communicators.

According to Choosing Therapy, passive communication is defined as someone who avoids saying what they think and feel. People with a passive communication style often ignore their own needs, sometimes allowing others to walk over them rather than stand up for themselves. They may be self-deprecating, excessively apologetic, or reliant on others for decisions.


HR Leader recently spoke to Leah Mether, a communications and soft skills specialist, about passive communication and how it affects the workplace. She gave some interesting insight and shared how a passive communicator comes to be.

“People communicate in a passive way for a whole host of reasons. For some people, it is their go-to communication style because they don’t have the confidence or they don’t feel they can speak up. But we do need to flag that some people communicate in a passive way because they don’t feel like it’s safe to speak up,” Mether said.

“There’s no psychological safety in their workplace. Maybe they’ve tried speaking up before and they got punished for it, so I need to flag that.”

The prescribed notion when it comes to passive communication is that it derives from a lack of confidence, putting the blame solely on the person who is exerting passive traits and therefore neglecting the possible implications that the environment they reside in is having on their ability to find their voice.

Leaders must find ways to promote a comfortable environment so it doesn’t impede employees’ ability to speak up about their concerns or thoughts, because it has personal and business implications if they don’t.

“Courage and psychological safety are two sides of the same coin. Yes, we need to encourage people to speak up and be more assertive and equip them with the skills to do that, but the counter is, are we as an organisation creating a culture and an environment that encourages people to speak up?” Mether said.

Passive communication can have a number of negative effects on an individual. Detriments will arise for the person with a passive style, and their situation will often worsen because of that fear of speaking up.

“A passive style will avoid conflict, often because they hope it’ll magically get better on its own. That is not what happens. When we avoid the elephant in the room, it only grows in size. So, what actually happens when you are a passive communicator and you avoid conflict or having challenging conversations early, the problems get bigger and grow,” Mether said.

“So, that can escalate issues that could have been nipped in the bud when they were just a bit of an uncomfortable conversation. [It can] grow and get out of control.”

On a more personal level, the repercussions can be extreme for the person who exudes passive traits. Being overlooked and taken advantage of are just some of the things that can happen when a worker has a passive communication style.

“You can get overlooked for promotions. Passive communicators often think their work should speak for itself. But you might have the best ideas, you might be a great employee, but if no one knows that, you’ll get passed over,” Mether said.

“People will disregard your opinions, thoughts, and beliefs, and some people will do it intentionally so they know you won’t speak up. So, they’ll give you all the crap jobs because they know they can. But some people will walk all over you without even realising that they’ve done that.”

Mether mentioned that passive communicators expect their colleagues to know how they feel and know what they want to do. This can lead to miscommunication.

“Another problem is you expect people to be mind readers. This is something I see commonly with passive communicators. They think you should know. You should know that would upset me. You should know that would offend me. If you’re a passive communicator, you tend to make assumptions that everyone thinks like you,” she said.

This can have a run-on effect because it can build up inside and then overflow into a mental breakdown, which can lead to conflict in the workplace.

“It generates feelings of stress. So, interestingly, our passive communicators are not always passive. They’re actually often, not always, but often the people who have the big explosions of anger. Just from it building up. They bottle it up until they can’t take it anymore, and it explodes. And your colleagues didn’t even know there was a problem,” Mether said.

A positive working environment does wonders for passive communicators and can give them the needed reassurance to speak up. It is important for leaders to acknowledge that passive communicators exist and make attempts to build their comfortability within the workplace. For passive communicators themselves, it is first about recognising when they are emitting passive tendencies and then working to counteract that so it doesn’t affect their productivity or mental state.

“Passive communicators often over-apologise and talk themselves down. So, something you could do as a passive communicator is just become more conscious of when you’re apologising and what you’re apologising for,” Mether concluded.

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.