Thoughts on the Skill/Will Matrix

5 minute read

Why Context is King

The Skill/Will matrix is a familiar tool for managers. It provides a systematic approach to adaptive, and situational leadership. The basic premise being that we need to apply different styles of leadership for different individuals, using their skill and motivational levels as related dimensions.
This is not just useful for managers, and it serves as an interesting mechanism for self-assessment, and taking ownership of one’s own career.

To create the snapshot, we make a binary classification for skill and will, into one of high or low, and we designate that person into the resulting quadrant. Each quadrant requires different types of activities, so thereafter, we adapt our situational leadership style. The important caveat however, is that the snapshot requires context. States are transient, and depending on the changes that led to the status quo, different actions are required.

Distinguish the destination from the journey.

The axes of the matrix are described below. One represents skill, and the other represents will.

Skill: The individual’s ability to do their job, and whilst we typically observe a spectrum within this dimension, for this exercise, we elevate the granularity and simply go with high or low.

Will: The attitude, and how motivated / inspired the person is to complete their tasks and the expectations of their role. Again, there’s a spectrum, but elevate the granularity for the sake of the exercise.

The first graph shows the inputs, and the second one the recommended leadership style that corresponds to each quadrant.

the skill-will matrix

For this to be an effective way of informing your actions going forward, you need to sprinkle some context on it. This is necessary because the snapshot is that of a single point in time.

As Heraclitus himself once said over a beer,

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.

Let’s take a quick High Will / High Skill example.

Our helpful matrix will tell us that we need to delegate more. This person has a high skill-set, and a good attitude. Is delegation the best course of action? Well, that depends. How long is the person in the role? What is their career goal? What lateral opportunities are present? In my opinion, a more important question to ask is, “how long has that person been in the quadrant?”.

If an employee’s skillset remains consistently high, it’s likely they are not being exposed to new challenges. Delegating more work to this person could be a way to challenge them, but there might be better approaches.

  • An internal rotation could open up new domains they haven’t experienced before and introduce them to new team members, requiring them to develop new relationships and build trust.
  • Driving a community initiative could help them sharpen some of their lesser-used soft skills.
  • Mentoring an underperforming employee might also help them refine their coaching and empathetic abilities.

The key is to find ways to push the employee out of their comfort zone and expose them to new experiences and responsibilities. This can help them continue to grow and develop in their role, and regardless of the activities, we’re aiming to gently nudge them back towards the low skill dimension, whilst still maintaining those higher motivation levels.

Frame and shape the activity. Start with Why.

Let’s contrast this with Low Skill / Low Will.

First off, this may not necessarily be a bad thing. Again, we need to add some context and common-sense, but for me, the more important dimension is Will.

Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning said that

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.

Granted, the subject of this statement were holocaust survivors, but taking some creative liberty, I find that the same can apply to individuals. Anomalies aside, driven and motivated individuals (with a why), who want to grow and learn, can always be coached and supported to do so (to figure out the how).

So assuming the will is there, then there are plenty of pragmatic approaches to support with skill (mentoring, coaching, PiPs, peer-review etc), but root-causing diminished motivation levels can be more ambiguous, and difficult for newer leaders. It’s absolutely imperative to diagnose the symptoms, and determine if it’s professional, or personal.

Professional: The role or projects no longer excite the individual. In this case, you could switch the domain, strengthen their support network, or identify internal mobility options (for capable individuals). It’s important to differentiate intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. I often like to work backwards from their goals, and what they want to achieve.

Personal: Bit of a minefield. Less (if at all) within a manager’s control, but support and bandwidth should be provided,.. for a fixed period of time. If my report is bored with their day to day, then I can expose them to new challenges, but if their wife ran away with the milkman, there’s significantly less that I can do.

In both cases, managers are playing a supporting role, and ultimately, responsibility and accountability sits with the individual. It’s very important to maintain an ongoing dialogue, set very clear expectations, timebox actions and results, and communicate the potential outcomes. Communication and ownership is a two-way committment. The horse to water analogy springs to mind.

Demonstrate empathy, not sympathy, Be discerning. Most of these challenges can be solved, but ultimately, do what’s right for the company, and keep this in mind when making decisions. If someone is problematic and cannot or will not change, then moving them sideways is not an option. Don’t pass a hot potato. You, as a manager, are responsible for managing out.

Closing thoughts.

The matrix snapshot is just a starting point, and requires much more additional context in order to be truly useful. The journey to the snapshot tells a story about the bigger picture. The destination from the snapshot (from both the manager’s and the individual’s perspective), shines a light on the path forward. In most cases, the path is pavable, but not always.