How to Use DISC Communication Styles in Virtual Teams

This month I went to my monthly PMI chapter meeting. Guest speaker Shana Young, shared a presentation about communication styles. She talked about how our communication characteristics form how we act in the office and lead clues into our teammates’ behavior. She explained that by using the DISC behavior styles of communication, we can understand our co-workers better and how best to work with each other based on the communication style that comes most naturally to us.

For instance, do you have that one person who always seems to be walking around saying “hi”, like they can never seem to sit at their desk for too long? They don’t have ADD but they are probably an Influence profile type, an outgoing people person who needs to socialize and interact with others so that they can focus on completing tasks – which drain their energy.

Do you have that one co-worker who never seems to agree to go to lunch when you ask them as you’re walking out the door? That person is most likely a Caution communication characteristic type. It’s not that they don’t like you, it is that they need time to think through a question before they can take action.


After explaining what DISC is, Young had us break into two different sides of the room. Those who associated as Reserved stayed on one side of the room while those of us who associated as Outgoing moved to the opposite side of the room. Out of about the 20 people in the meeting, only 4 us of moved to the Outgoing side of the room! From there we broke out into each corner of the room based on how we thought of ourselves. In each corner we split out into Outgoing/Task Oriented, Outgoing/People Oriented, Reserved/People Oriented, and Reserved/Task Oriented. Out of the group, I was the only one who self-identified as an Outgoing/People Oriented person.

I found this interesting because as a group of project managers, I would have thought that we would need to be more people oriented. Although managing work breakdown structures and tasks are an important part of project management, it is the people that make up the team and do the work that is most important to project success. My suspicions were right because Young informed us that 60% of people are people oriented. It is important to recognize people’s communication characteristics because it helps explain their actions at work. Also, people work based on who they like.

As we went through the exercise of finding out who in our chapter was a D, I, S, or C, I kept thinking about how this translated to remote, virtual teams. How can we determine our team mate’s communication characteristics when we hardly see them in real life?

I was in the Outgoing, People Person category. This meant that I, in general, have a hard time sitting too long at my desk knocking out tasks because it drains my energy. I need to get up, walk around, have some people time. However, when I do take breaks, like taking my dog for a walk, my co-workers see that I am inactive online. They may think that I’m not getting the work done that was assigned to me.

Another characteristic of outgoing, people persons is that they bring energy to the group. This is great for those boring, online conference calls. The energy in their voice helps to wake up the other callers, making those phone calls more productive by spurring conversation.

However, this type of energy could lead to problems if they fill the team chat with conversations that have nothing to do with work or is only slightly related. They might end up going down long rabbit trails for developing a feature that isn’t on the roadmap for the current project. So, how do we know that our teammates are completing their work when all they seem to be doing is chatting up the airways?

Similar problems can be had for people who are more reserved and task oriented. They may be great at knocking out tasks because they can shut out the world in their home office but by doing this they do not check in with the rest of the team. This has happened to me with some of my teammates. I assigned out work and was worried that it wasn’t getting done because I didn’t hear from the person I assigned it to. The next day, however, the tasks I assigned were completed plus some extra ones! By paying attention to communication styles I now know that I have to be the one to speak up and ask how a task is going because their communication style is not too.

This is where Young’s message that people with opposite characteristics have a hard time getting along at work. In personal relationships, however, people with opposite communication styles get along better.

How to Use DISC Communication Characteristics for the Virtual Team

When working on a remote, virtual team it is important to have clear, transparent communication with your team.

  1. Go through the exercise of having each team member tell you what their communication characteristic is. You can take a free DISC assessment here or take a professional assessment.
  2. Have a discussion about what communication style each team member is most comfortable with. This does not mean that you can only communicate with them in that way, but it helps the rest of the team understand where that person is coming from.
  3. When conflict arises between team members on a remote or virtual team, think about your communication characteristic compared to theirs to see how your styles may be part of the conflict.

Did you take the free, DISC assessment? What result did you get? Have you used personality or communication characteristics to manage your virtual team?


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