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Most Employees Struggle with Key Competencies—But Managers Don’t Do Anything About It 

Managers fail to hold employees accountable and employees fail to take responsibility for poor performance in six key standards

PROVO UT – November 27, 2018 –A new study by VitalSmarts, a corporate training organization, shows that when employees demonstrate incompetence in key standards, managers and leaders provide little-to-no feedback about their poor performance. And in the absence of accountability, employees fail to take ownership of their incompetence or take measures to improve.

VitalSmarts researchers reviewed dozens of organizational competency models and identified the six most common employee competencies leaders care about. They include 1) leadership & management; 2) communication & interpersonal skills; 3) teamwork & collaboration; 4) self-direction & professionalism; 5) critical thinking & creativity; and 6) change management.

More than 200 managers were asked if they had one or more employees who struggled in these competencies and the cost to the organization when employees struggled. They were also asked if employees received feedback about their incompetence and whether or not employees took ownership of and action to resolve their incompetence. What the study found is that employee incompetence in six key standards is common, costly, unchecked and unresolved.


Managers say employee incompetency is pervasive. Specifically, 3 out of 4 managers say they have one or more employees who struggle in each of the key competencies. Employees are most incompetent when it comes to leadership & management standards and communication & interpersonal skills – with 97% of managers saying they have employees who struggle in these areas.


This incompetency in every area is costly. When employees struggle in any of these six areas, managers consider them much less valuable to the organization. Specifically, on average, half of managers say that performance deficits in these six standards has a large or very large negative impact on the organization. The competency managers rate as most costly to the organization is self-direction & professionalism.


Perhaps most alarming is that incompetent employees don’t receive feedback about their need to improve. Across the six key competencies, less than 1 in 5 managers say their struggling employees have received constructive feedback. Specifically:

  • Only 8% of managers say employees have received feedback about their poor communication & interpersonal skills.
  • 10% say employees have received feedback about their lack of leadership skills.
  • 12% say employees have received feedback about their lack of critical thinking, creativity and change management skills.
  • 13% say employees have received feedback about their lack of teamwork & collaboration.
  • 17% say employees have received feedback about their lack of self-direction & professionalism.


Because employees are not held accountable for their performance, few struggling employees accept responsibility and begin to take action to improve. Fewer than 1 in 4 managers said employees have accepted responsibility and taken steps to improve performance in 4 of the 6 key competencies. The key standards employees most fail to own and resolve include leadership & management and communication & interpersonal skills.

Researchers say this study highlights exactly where organizations are failing when it comes to performance improvement and employee development.

“This study documents a major disconnect in accountability,” said David Maxfield, VP of Research at VitalSmarts, and author of the bestselling book Crucial Accountability.“Over the years, we’ve worked with thousands of organizations looking to improve employee competencies through formalized training. And certainly, skill-building is an important part of the solution to elevating performance. But unless and until leaders can appropriately hold employees accountable and help them take steps to improve, changes in performance will be slow and imperceptible.”


Note to Editor:Maxfield is available for interviews.

About VitalSmarts: Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations®, Crucial Accountability®, Getting Things Done®, and Influencer Training® and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 2 million people worldwide. www.vitalsmarts.com

Contact: Kristen Linsmeier at vitalsmarts@methodcommunications.comor 801-461-9780.

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