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Hannah Taylor

Using the Skill Will Matrix to Help Coach Your Team: A Guide

Your team members will all have different coaching needs, so how do you tell what approach to take? The Skill Will Matrix is one way to see what might work best for each person.

How can I be a better coach for my team?

It’s a question most team leaders will ask themselves sooner or later. As no two employees work or think in the same way, motivating and supporting a team to deliver their best work can be immensely challenging.

Think about the members of your team. Who is highly self-motivated, and who needs a gentle push from their higher-ups to reach their goals? Where one employee is confident enough in their skills to manage their workload with limited oversight, another will need more assistance. Long story short, there’s no one-size fits all approach to coaching a diverse team of individuals with unique needs.

The Skill Will Matrix is one option to help managers assess what leadership and coaching style will best suit different employees. Read on for our complete guide on how to use the Skill Will Matrix to better support your team and improve your people management skills.

What is the Skill Will Matrix?

Adapting your management style for each member of your team is an important part of empathetic leadership. But when trying to identify everyone’s needs becomes overwhelming, a handy matrix can help guide you.

The origins of the Skill Will Matrix date back to the 1970s, when Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey were working on their Situational Leadership Model, but it was popularized by Max Landsberg after he referenced it in his 1996 book, The Tao of Coaching.

The premise of the Skill Will Matrix is simple: by plotting an employee’s ‘skill’ level on the X axis versus their ‘will’ level on the Y axis, you can determine what leadership style they will most benefit from. This will then help you adapt your approach to their unique needs. Easy, right?

So, what do ‘will’ and ‘skill’ mean in the context of the matrix? Let’s explore.

Understanding the Skill Will Matrix

Defining ‘skill’ and ‘will’

To accurately use this model, you need to understand exactly what you’re measuring. Let’s define what we mean when we talk about ‘skill’ and ‘will.’

What does ‘skill’ mean?

‘Skill’ measures each employee’s level of capability at work. Whether they work in a creative, strategic, or managerial role, there will be job-specific skills that determine how capable they are.

Experienced workers will usually fall into the ‘high skill’ category, while new hires or those struggling with their responsibilities could be seen as having a low level of ability.

What does ‘will’ mean?

Assessing ‘will’ is more complicated. An employee's will is tied to their level of motivation: some workers are incredibly self-motivated, perhaps due to personal goals, whereas others need more external motivation.

It’s important to remember that motivation is not a constant; it will fluctuate as confidence levels change and personal factors come into play. For example, a formally high-will employee may lose motivation after experiencing a setback at work or a complication in their personal life.

The Skill Will Matrix’s quadrants

The Skill Will Matrix is divided into four quadrants representing the four coaching styles. You can determine which quadrant a team member falls into by plotting their skill vs. will level on the matrix. Here’s what approach matches each quadrant:

  • High Skill, High Will: the Delegate approach
  • Low Skill, High Will: the Guide approach
  • High Skill, Low Will: the Excite approach
  • Low Skill, Low Will: the Direct approach.

But what are these four approaches, and how can you use them to motivate your team?

How to use the Skill Will Matrix

Before you can begin assigning approaches to team members, you need to step back and assess each member of your team’s skill and will in relation to their role. Only once you’ve gathered this information and defined their level of ability and will can you begin plotting workers on the matrix.

Let’s look at how you can adapt your management style for each category and better support your team dynamics.

Delegate: High Skill, High Will

These people will typically be highly motivated, high performers who your business will be keen to retain.

They likely:

  • are great at their job and need little oversight from management
  • view attempts to manage their work too closely as unnecessary or even patronizing
  • can be relied on to find their own motivation
  • enjoy their work 
  • are committed to performing to a high standard

Taking a Delegate approach means empowering these team members to exercise their autonomy while making it clear you are there to support them as they need. Rather than acting as a coach, you take on the role of mentor, trusting them to manage their workloads and execute tasks without excessive oversight.

Here are some ways you can support high-skill, high-will workers:

  • Provide the ‘big picture’ to guide them, but allow them to make their own decisions when it comes to running projects and tasks
  • Assign them a new challenge or new responsibilities
  • Keep them informed of their project’s results and provide frequent feedback
  • Remain accessible as a sounding board and source of information
  • Engage in productive conflict by encouraging them to bring ideas to the table that contradict your own; this will go a long way to developing their confidence and sparking new ideas.

Guide: Low Skill, High Will

People who fit into the low-skill, high-will quadrant have high levels of motivation to achieve but lack the skillset to reach their professional goals.

They likely:

  • are new to their role or the company
  • are confident and enthusiastic about their future
  • lack the experience or skill to reach their full potential

These employees are ready and willing to work but require a Guide to support them as they develop new skills and explore new opportunities.

Here are some ways you can support low-skill, high-will workers:

  • Explain why you and others make certain decisions, allowing them to ask questions and learn
  • Use KPIs to track their individual performance and recognize their incremental achievements
  • Help them identify areas for improvement and put plans in place to help them grow;  you can use the Grow Model to support this process
  • Identify opportunities for learning development, such as e-training, shadowing, or on-the-job learning.

Excite: High Skill, Low Will

You may notice that your team members who have great potential but don’t always meet your expectations fall into this quadrant; that suggests they’re highly skilled but lack will.

They likely:

  • Already have the skills needed to complete tasks to a high standard
  • Lack the confidence to reach their full potential
  • Require external motivation to get into gear
  • Feel greatly impacted by their working environment

What’s important to remember when working with high-skill, low-will individuals is that there are steps you can take to motivate them.

By uncovering what motivates high-skill, low-will employees, you can create a plan of action to re-ignite their love for their job and dedication to the team; that’s why the approach is called ‘Excite!’

Here are some ways you can support high-skill, low-will workers:

  • Take the time to listen to any concerns they have about their abilities or work environment
  • Work with them to understand their motivations: you can use a motivation theory such as Herzberg's Theory or McClelland's Human Motivation Theory here
  • Encourage their work by offering adequate motivation, such as rewarding their successes, allocating additional responsibilities that match their skills, or putting in place SMART goals.

Direct: Low Skill, Low Will

Whereas those in the previous three quadrants are eager to achieve, able to achieve, or both, employees who fall into the low-skill, low-will quadrant require extensive training and support to increase their levels of motivation and skill.

They likely: 

  • spend time procrastinating or intentionally putting off their tasks. People typically procrastinate due to feelings of anxiety. They may feel intimidated by a particular task or uncertain of what’s being asked of them
  • struggle to communicate the challenges they’re facing or ask for guidance
  • underperform on a regular basis, either by failing to meet deadlines or expectations or by making recurring mistakes

The good news is that there’s nowhere to go but up! With a Direct approach, you can help low-skill, low-will workers feel more confident in their abilities.

Here are some ways you can support low-skill, low-will workers:

  • Provide specific instructions and clear rules; if they’re new to the business or their role, they may need initial guidance to help them find their feet.
  • Make decisions on their behalf, but explain why you and others make certain choices, allowing them to ask questions and learn.
  • Take the lead on communication. Asking clarity questions such as ‘Is there anything I’ve said that you don’t understand?’ is a great way to encourage open communication and make it easier for them to ask for help.
  • Help them identify areas for improvement and put plans in place to help them grow; you can use the Grow Model to support this process.

When can you use the Skill Will Matrix?

Now that you understand how to use the Skill Will Matrix let’s explore where you can put it to use:

  • Onboarding new team members: When a new starter joins your organization or team, it’s your responsibility as their manager to make sure they’re as well supported as possible. You can use the matrix to ensure you use the right management approach from their first day.
  • Identifying training needs: You can use the matrix to determine who needs training and in what area, allowing you to plan and allocate your training budget accordingly. This is especially true for upskilling low-skill individuals.
  • Resourcing: When you begin a new project, you need to create a project team. The matrix can help you create a team that’s well-balanced in terms of skill and will level.
  • Appraisals and promotions: The matrix can help you identify who’s ready to take a step up, who’s underperforming, and who needs additional support — all important information for completing employee appraisals.
  • Supporting an existing team: If you want to better support your team members’ individual development and increase team resilience, the matrix can help you put plans into place to address their needs.

What to keep in mind when using the Skill Will Matrix

The Skill Will Matrix is a highly useful technique for team coaches to have in their toolkits. But before you begin putting it into practice, let’s look at the positives and negatives associated with this tool.

The pros of the Skill Will Matrix

Here are just a few of the reasons why the Skill Will Matrix is invaluable for leaders looking to improve their management style:

  • It’s simple: The matrix is incredibly simple to understand and implement when looking to quickly assess a worker’s abilities and needs.
  • It offers guidance: If you’re a new leader or want to develop your people management skills and style, the matrix offers a step-by-step method to do just that.
  • You can increase employee engagement and satisfaction: When used correctly, your team should respond positively to the matrix. Taking a personalized approach to management and coaching (or mentoring) will increase their satisfaction, supporting employee retention in the long term.
  • You can support employee development: One of the greatest barriers to employee development is leaders not taking the time to adapt their management approach to each employee’s needs. The matrix helps managers overcome this hurdle.

The cons of the Skill Will Matrix

Remember, these negatives can be overcome with the right mindset.

  • It’s oversimplified: People are many times more complex than their job roles, and sorting them into four neat boxes is an oversimplification of their experience at work. There are hundreds of factors influencing employee performance that aren’t taken into account when using the Skill Will Matrix.
  • It’s static: As the matrix captures each employee's skill and will level at one moment in time, you need to commit to regularly updating your assessment as they develop.
  • It’s subjective: The assessment you make of each worker’s skill and will is subjective. We recommend working with each team member to make sure you come to the fairest conclusion.

Watch outs

Taking these pros and cons into account, here are three key ‘watch outs’ to keep in mind when using this technique:

  1. You will need to use additional tools: From formulas to determine skill level to SMART goals for monitoring progress, you will need to use other complementary tools to inform your assessments and guide your actions.
  2. Don’t lean on biases: You want to get the most out of your team. That means being as objective as possible in your assessments by using measurable KPIs.
  3. Look at external factors: Your team’s performance will be affected by countless factors, from their experience in the office to their relationships at home. Communication is key to ensuring you get a holistic view of their work and personal situation.

Not tracking your team members’ skills yet?

The Skill Will Matrix works best when you’ve got a solid understanding of your team members' skill and motivation levels. Not tracking their skills yet? Read all about skills management and tracking here:

The Beginner's Guide to Skills Management

How to Perform a Skills Gap Analysis in Your Organization

The Beginner's Guide to Skills Tracking for 2023

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