How to Use the Skill-Will Matrix to Pick the Right Leadership Style

skill-will situational leadership matrix
Photo by Rebrand Cities via pixels

What is situational leadership and how do you use the Skill-Will method?

The Skill-Will Matrix is a situational leadership model, made popular by Max Landsberg in his book The Tao of Coaching (2003). The Skill-Will method is easy to remember and apply, and that is why it remains popular with managers. The approach is primarily used to help identify the leadership style best suited to a given team member, but it can also help managers consider the performance management of their employees.

Situational leadership is a type of leadership theory that advocates for leaders to adapt their management approach to fit the circumstances. The premise is that there is no single correct way to lead in every situation as people, challenges and events are in flux. Therefore, good leaders use their judgement and flex their style according to the needs of the situation. 

The Skill-Will method is similar to the classic Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership model but differs in the respect that its focuses on the subject (the employee) rather than the leader (or employer).

The 4 quadrants and leadership styles of the skill-will matrix

The skill-will matrix is a simple way to assess the right leadership style according to an individual or team’s level of will (motivation) or skill (competence). It is easily visualised as a two-by-two table with one axis being will (low and high) and the other axis being skill (low and high). 

The matrix then proposes the best leadership style for a person, depending on where the subject falls in the four quadrants:

  • Low-will/low-skill: Direct
  • High-will/low-skill: Guide
  • Low-will/high-skill: Excite
  • High-will/high-skill: Delegate

You can see this illustrated in the picture below.

skill-will situational leadership matrix
The Skill-Will Situational Leadership Matrix

Here is a further explanation of each of the four quadrants and the related leadership styles.

Low-will and low-skill: Direct

When someone has low levels of competence or motivation, then they fall into the low-will/low-skill quadrant. The leader needs to Direct team members in this category. In other words, the manager needs to explain tasks carefully and in detail, set clear deadlines and guidelines, and then monitor closely. Setting SMART or SMARTER tasks (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based, evaluated, and re-evaluated) is essential.

This type of leadership takes the most time and effort of any of the four quadrants and therefore is generally less preferable. A leader who remains in a directive mode of leadership also runs the risk of micro-managing employees if they apply this style in the wrong circumstances. 

A classic example of someone in the low-will/low-skill section of the matrix would be someone new to the workplace. These employees need time and training so they can develop their skills. They also need support and encouragement so they can grow in confidence and motivation.

Though this most commonly applies to new workers, low performers generally also fall into this space. Over time a manager could have tried to help the team member progress beyond this quadrant, but it does not always work out. When this is the case, it can be best for the individual to move elsewhere. Sometimes there is a personality clash, so it is worth considering moving the person sideways to another role or team before moving that person out of the organisation completely. These kinds of moves can be hard, but a good leader seeks to find a place where an individual can thrive, even if it is outside their group. 

High-will and low-skill: Guide

If someone is enthusiastic but does not necessarily have the right skills or experience, then they fall into the high-will/low-skill category. Here a leader needs to Guide the team member.

When a person is motivated, the role of the manager is to focus that energy and provide the information or instruction needed to complete a task. In this way the leader can be seen as a guide or mentor, supporting the worker by helping them fill in gaps in their knowledge.

Subjects who fall into this quadrant have great growth opportunities and so a manager can use tools such as Kolb’s learning styles and the GROW model to help identify approaches and tasks to develop the individual.  

A typical example of someone in this scenario would be a new graduate who might be very intelligent with high energy levels but lacking some experience and specific industry know-how. The trick here is to help the person develop their skills without them losing their motivation.

There is also a potential win-win opportunity here to develop people from two different quadrants. Someone from the high-skill but low-will zone might prove to be a good mentor for those in the high-will/low-skill area. In this way, the experienced person can take on this guiding or mentoring role and hopefully, they will find this motivating, increasing their will while helping the other person to up-skill.

Low-will and high-skill: Excite

A person who lacks enthusiasm but has the necessary know-how falls into the low-will/high-skill bracket. Here the leader needs to Excite the team member by finding ways to increase their will and energy levels.

Long-term team members can sometimes fall into this category. They have all the skills they need to do their job but have lost some of their mojo. If work starts to feel stale or dull, then they lose their enthusiasm. The danger here is that this lack of drive can be infectious and impact other members of the team, particularly new ones who might look up to these experienced team members. 

In this situation, a manager must find what is going to motivate that person. What are their drivers? A conversation about personal values could illuminate their passions. Exploring their work-life balance, using a tool such as the Wheel of Life, could also be helpful. This can unearth new goals or areas of growth to help motivate the individual. 

As mentioned in the high-will/low-skill section, there is an opportunity to team up with more experienced (but less motivated) employees with energetic (but less competent) team members. This can help both parties move up to the high-will/high-skill zone, while also sharing out some of the management burden of the team leader.

High-will and high-skill: Delegate

If people are both able and willing then they fall into the top right quadrant, that of high-will and high-skill personnel. Leaders can Delegate to these individuals, trusting that they can do the job.

This is the ideal quadrant for managers and team members alike. Being able to delegate effectively empowers the individual and allows the leader to think of longer-term issues, such as business development or the further career development of individuals.

Career development becomes an even more important question for team members in this quadrant as they are the most likely people to be promoted, or who get poached by other teams or organisations. One of the biggest frustrations – but equally the most satisfying aspects of leadership – is seeing one’s best people outgrow the team.

Therefore, it is vital that the leader continues to find new challenges and growth opportunities for the people who fall into this zone. A boss can take on more of a coaching leadership style with a light-touch management approach. A manager needs to create space for creativity and should be comfortable with taking more risks with the individual. 

Video of the Skill Will approach to situational leadership and delegation

An example of the potential pitfalls of the Skill-Will matrix

I once had an excellent employee who sat in the top, high-will/high-skill quadrant of the matrix. They were experienced, an old hand at the job, but still maintained high energy levels that bolstered the team as a whole. They were a good mentor for new team members, and I often delegated leadership responsibility to them in my absence. 

So, when I asked this person to organise a team social, I thought nothing of it, I expected a great result. The problem was that the event was a disaster. The timing, location and expense of the event meant that it would not have got the participation I wanted and therefore I had to intervene and organise the event myself. This was largely a failure on my part. 

I was lulled by the Halo Effect, a cognitive bias where I assumed that because this person was good at one thing, then they would be good at another. Here, the person in question was excellent at technical work, and in these circumstances, they were high-will/high-skill. But when I gave them a team-building task this pushed them into a high-will/low-skill situation. Because I did not realise this, I had to take their task away and this damaged their motivation, pushing them into the high-skill/low-will area for a while. It took some coaching from me to get them back on track again. 

The point of this example is that don’t assume that people remain static in these quadrants. A change in role, task or situation can easily push people out of their zone – for better or worse – and therefore the leader needs to have good situational awareness and be constantly assessing their people to keep applying the best managerial tactic. 

How to use the skill-will matrix

I like the Skill-Will matrix as a leadership approach and management tool as it is so easy to remember and apply. I also like the fact that it was developed from a coaching perspective and forces the leader to think about the way to get the best out of each team member.

If you want to assess someone in your team and modify your leadership style to suit them, then use the Skill-Will matrix. Think of the matrix as a graph and then score the person against each axis to help quantify your thoughts by following these steps:

  1. First, think of their skill level. What is their training, competency, or experience for the task at hand? Give them a rating of 1-10.
  2. Then think of their will. What are their motivation levels? How energised are they to take on the project? Give this a rating of 1-10
  3. Now plot these scores onto the Skill-Will table with 1-5 being low and 6-10 being high on each axis.
  4. Pick the appropriate style accordingly.

And remember, we all have our preferred style of leading so it might feel uncomfortable to change that style at first. But, as with fitness, the more you work on your flexibility, the easier that stretching of approaches becomes.

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