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Current State of Communication Skills

In ACCEL: The Skills That Make a Winning Manager, the Association for Talent Development (ATD) set out to examine the development of five specific skills—accountability, communication, collaboration, engagement, and listening and assessing—that are crucial to managerial success. 

ATD defines “communication” as the exchange of information and feedback between managers and their direct reports. Communication also involves a willingness to engage in three types of conversations with employees: disciplinary, coaching, and praise. Managers who are adept at communication foster a transparent, open, and honest team atmosphere. At the individual level, effective communication—including targeted, actionable feedback—can build awareness and action toward better employee performance. 

In early 2016, ATD Research surveyed 847 talent development professionals about the ACCEL skills of managers in their organization. Participants in the study reported that communication (88 percent) and listening and assessing (82 percent) were the top three skills that enable mangers to be successful in developing their direct reports to a high or very high extent. Likewise, the vast majority of participants indicated that communication skills (86 percent) and listening and assessing skills (85 percent) contributed to the success of managers developing their direct reports in their organization. 


The finding that these two skills are most related to managerial success makes sense. According to the data, though, slightly less than a third of managers exhibit to a “high extent” or “very high extent” solid communication skills when working with their direct reports (29 percent). And participants were least likely to think managers at their organization exhibited listening and assessing skills. 

That so few managers are using listening and assessing skills is not ideal. Unfortunately, these findings from ATD Research concur with other well-documented studies. For example, Ram Charan (2012) of the Harvard Business Review found that one in four leaders has a listening deficit. The Society for Human Resource Management and also found that 59 percent of respondents believed their managers do not listen to their concerns (AMA 2010). 

Management’s failure to listen may even be causing considerable losses in productivity. One experiment appearing in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that people in a position of power actually listen less, in that they take advice less often, and make less accurate judgments than those who are not in a position of power. This experiment has implications for management: When managers do not listen to their direct reports they are more likely to make less accurate final judgments. Therefore, improving upon managers’ listening and assessing skills is critical to the overall success of an organization. 

Although talent development professionals in the study indicated that their organizations gave frontline managers the most opportunities to develop proficiency in communication skills (38 percent) and listening and assessing skills (33 percent) to a high or very high extent, these numbers are quite low given the importance of these skills. Communication is an essential element in the manager–direct report relationship, so one would assume ample opportunities would exist for managers to develop proficiency in this area; however, that is simply not the case. 

Clearly, there is a call for more communication training. Given the importance of frontline managers and their critical tasks, you may want to check out ACCEL: The Skills That Make a Winning Manager to get a more focused picture of the barriers that keep managers from effectively exhibiting communication skills, as well as some key training opportunities.

About the Author
ATD Research tracks trends, informs decisions, and connects research to performance. By providing comprehensive data and insightful analysis, ATD Research Reports help business leaders and workplace learning and performance professionals understand and more effectively respond to today's fast-paced workplace learning and development industry. Our research reports offer an empirical foundation for today's data-driven decision-makers, containing both quantitative and qualitative analysis about organizational learning, human capital management, training, and performance.
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