Skill Will Matrix: Creating Motivated Employees

As a manager, one of the most difficult aspects of the job description is performance management, and from there, some may feel the hardest part is determining where to start—analyzing employees on…

As a manager, one of the most difficult aspects of the job description is performance management, and from there, some may feel the hardest part is determining where to start—analyzing employees on an individual level. Shortcomings are something every employee, and employer faces time and time again over the course of a career. The real test is what is done to overcome shortcomings and obstacles. So, an employee appears to be falling short of clear and reasonable expectations, now what? The Skill Will Matrix, based on the situational leadership model that was invented by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1970s, can be a helpful tool in assessing performance management ‘square one.’ The matrix quickly transformed into a broad-spectrum use tool for employee analysis in all industries. With it, employers can assess whether an employee is strong or lacking in will or in skill and determine a performance management approach from that point. Managers can use this matrix to understand how to create motivated employees. 

A diagram of the “Skill vs. Will” Matrix


What is “will” and what is “skill” in the context of the Skill Will Matrix?

When it comes to the workplace, “skill” refers to the nitty-gritty abilities a person has. Skill can be improved when an employee receives and applies training and practice. An individual’s natural talents also come into play under the skill category, so employees may come in starting at various skill levels, but always with the opportunity to develop them. On the other hand, “will” at work refers to an employee’s inner desire to achieve or perform, their incentive to do tasks, their confidence in their abilities, and their overall attitude towards work. It may seem as though “will” would be the easier characteristic to tweak, but ultimately, an individual’s will comes from within. Without intrinsic motivation, skills will never improve, and performance suffers.     

A Brief Background of the Skill Will Matrix:

As was already mentioned, the Skill Will matrix originally came about based on a model invented by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1970s. Both leadership and behavioral experts, the two men developed the situational leadership model now famous among business and leadership professionals. The Skill Will Matrix was derived from this situational leadership model. The situational leadership model covers a similar basis but from the perspective of a manager or leader. The Skill Will matrix essentially allows for four possibilities: low skill and low will, low skill and high will, high will and low skill, and high will and high skill. After an assessment of these four possibilities, a development approach is associated with each. The Skill Will matrix gives managers the ultimate opportunity to be effective and efficient in their leadership, should they adjust their management style to the employee’s level.  

A Synopsis of the Four Quadrants:

High Will + High Skill 


When an employee is already motivated, involved, and capable, perhaps the next step in performance management is to give them more responsibility and authority. This individual has proven they are committed and more than competent: try asking them for opinions, involving them in decision-making processes, or trusting them with time and budget information as permitted. Additionally, it’s important to praise and reward their success; praise high-will/high skill workers not only to show impressive individuals that they are successful but also to help set a standard for the rest of the office. 

Low Will + Low Skill         

Now, on the opposite end of the matrix, there are low-will, low-skill employees who struggle with motivation, involvement, and hard skills. This is no one’s favorite scenario, and it varies from company to company and even manager to manager, but a low-will and low-skill worker needs explicit direction and hard-set expectations. It’s important to discuss with workers in this quadrant what needs to occur in order to maintain employment. Check to make sure they understand and frequently provide feedback. Require one-on-one huddles often and be prepared to stick to the consequences that were set upfront. A worker who lacks motivation and skillset doesn’t necessarily need to be immediately cut from the team, however, the end goal of any business is high, productive performance. If employees are not reaching that standard even after specific direction and guidance, it may be time for termination. 

High Will + Low Skill

 When an employee wants to succeed and has a sense of motivation from within but still is falling short of the set expectations, they fall under the third quadrant: high will and low skill. Employees in this category are arguably the easiest to transform into top tier workers. When an individual wants to be successful but is simply lacking the necessary skills to do so, that desire can be translated into a drive to master skills. These employees are teachable, motivated, and passionate. For managers, the approach is to carefully guide high will, low skill workers toward success by coaching and training them in the required skillset. A pattern of frequent feedback is critical to developing skills. Later, as progress is made, the now high will, high skill employee can be given more authority and responsibility. Ultimately, any employee that is highly motivated can be coached into success. 

Low Will + High Skill

 The last quadrant is a unique combination of impressive talent, yet low motivation. This can spur from several situations: family or home struggles to mental health issues to a misalignment to the company’s mission and goals. As a manager, it can be difficult to bring out the impressive talents in an employee who has no will to complete tasks. In this case, it is essential to excite your employees, help them see what their purpose is at work. Employee engagement—engaging their desire for purpose, value, and meaning at work—is going to be the key to unlocking the skills just below the surface. Set regular and achievable goals with your employees so as to encourage and excite them about completing tasks. Once an individual gains the motivation to move forward, progress, and complete tasks at work, their underlying natural talent can be used and even further developed. At the end of the day, as mentioned several times already, it is an employee’s “will” that determines whether they will perform well. 


Will vs. Skill: So What?

The difference between will and skill is clear. Skill is rather easily measured: the hard-wired, black and white capabilities of an individual. Will, on the other hand, is more complex, more frequently ebbing and flowing, more difficult to change. With that, “will” is arguably the more important quality of the two. Without motivation, an employee can achieve nothing, they will not be able to contribute their skills to the mission and purpose of the company. Even with mastery of every skill in the world, an employee who feels no motivation towards a purpose or mission at work will not succeed. (More tips on how to build a culture of motivated employees). Conversely, a worker with will to spare can find the drive to master any skill and will perform impressively whether or not they had necessary skills from the start, because they had the desire to make it happen. So, here’s the takeaway: focus on employee’s will. Skills can be taught with ease, but will must be planted and harvested in the right conditions. It is critical to create company conditions and culture that will allow for strong-willed employees, as they are fundamental to the success of your business.

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