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Understanding Employee Performance Through The Skill-vs-Will Matrix

It’s no secret that we as bosses and coaches have seemingly hundreds of resources and methodologies at our disposal, geared toward the most effective way to build a successful team. This can be quite overwhelming, and not all of these resources consider your corporate environment.

Because of this, I want to focus on a smaller category of those larger strategies – ensuring your team knows what’s expected of them and how that plays into their daily work life as well as their career trajectory. Expectations cannot be based on selfish gain; instead, they should focus on building a well-oiled team that when successful, makes you successful as the manager.


Expectations vs. Feedback

We focus on the concept of feedback A LOT at LeadMD. In a fast-paced consulting environment where team members are consistently called on for their expertise, there’s no shortage of emails, meetings or call recordings which can be leveraged for feedback.

When the idea of taking a more expectation-focused approach was first presented to our leadership team, my first thought was, “We give plenty of feedback already, what’s the difference?” The more I thought about this, the more I realized that expectations are analogous to paving a road for cars to drive down and feedback is like the aids along the way to get to a destination. Feedback without expectations is similar to taking someone and dropping them in the middle of a city with no GPS or map and telling them to figure out how to meet you on the other side of town. Could they get there eventually? Probably. However, there will be significant hurdles along the way that aren’t doing either of you any favors.

Expectations are critical in setting both the direction of your team and your team’s career development. We’ve all had that one experience or job where we felt like we were walking around on pins and needles. We weren’t receiving negative feedback per se, but because we didn’t understand our individual and team direction, that inevitable question of “how do I know if I’m performing well?” crept into our minds. From there, the brain can go down a rabbit hole of anxiety and self-doubt, which can begin to impact performance negatively.

Now that we’ve broken down the differences between expectations & feedback, it’s time to dive into some practical methods for setting and maintaining those expectations with your team.


Skill vs. Will

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there are two primary components of understanding an individual’s ability to perform tasks.

  • The skill (or ability) with which the person can perform
  • The will (or willingness) the person has to do the task.

Ultimately, this boils down to how good is the person at doing the work and their desire to do it. The framework below illustrates the skill vs. will matrix.

Skill Will Matrix

The basic tenants of this are low and high, and as you move from the bottom left corner to the upper right corner, each of these measures moves closer to high. We can apply this framework to two examples in my own life – managing the family’s finances and changing diapers.

When it comes time to sit down for weekly budget meetings with my wife, I get excited about digging into the numbers and understanding where money is coming in and where it’s going out. I’m a numbers guy, and I like doing it. I’m also pretty good at it – at least in my head. You could say I have high skill and high will.

In the other example, let’s say I’m up against a blowout diaper situation with our toddler (you parents know what I’m talking about). Do I have a high sense of desire to change my daughter’s diaper (and probably bath her in the process)? Not really…except for the fact that I can’t leave her sitting in a mess. Have I changed countless numbers of diapers and know what I’m doing there? Absolutely. In this example, you could say I have high skill and low will.

While some of you might have chuckled or rolled your eyes at the second example, these types of situations play out in the professional world all the time. As managers, we need to provide that roadmap for our teams.


A Practical Way to Evaluate Your Team

It’s essential to ensure that the concept of ‘evaluation’ doesn’t seem negative to those involved. When first broaching the topic with my team, I frame it as a way to make sure that they and I are on the sample page with what is expected in specific parts of their role. That will be the litmus test for the question of “am I doing a good job.” No more sitting in the shadows worrying about it.

Here’s how team evaluations were conducted:

Manager Preparation

  1. Document 3-5 priority expectations of the role/position
  2. Define responsibilities related to those expectations
  3. Rate the team member for skill/will in each expectation (High, Medium, Low)
  4. Create a development/improvement plan for each expectation

After, I scheduled a meeting with each team member to review expectations. During that meeting, we first started with a definition of each expectation and what it meant to me. It’s imperative that both parties be on the same page. After we were aligned on each expectation, the team member rated him/her self within the skill/will framework – high, medium, or low.

When the self-assessment was completed, we then discussed my ratings for each expectation. I held back my ratings until the end intentionally because I didn’t want any bias in the self-designated answers. They needed to be as honest as possible.

Note that there will be some cases where manager ratings differ from employee ratings. This is normal and should lead to a productive conversation. In my own experience, there were cases both ways. One team member thought they were higher in a certain area than I did, and another thought they were lower in an area than I did. In the first example, we were able to have a positive conversation where the team member convinced me she was indeed higher on the skill portion that I had originally thought, based on new evidence. That is the point of all of this – to have a conversation.


Ongoing Development

After the evaluations are completed, the next step is deciding how to move forward with the outputs. Set a cadence for how often the skill/will items will be reviewed. I have weekly meetings with each team member, and we discuss the progress towards improvement in skill on a monthly basis.

The original list of 3-5 expectations shouldn’t be the end of the road either. As a team member reaches the desired proficiency, that attainment should be documented and another expectation slotted in its place. This practice helps in longer-term review cycles such as annual reviews. Few managers are keeping a year’s worth of notes on the performance of individuals on their team to a point where they can handily pull them up at the time of annual reviews. By recording what someone has worked on and attained over the course of a year, it’s much easier to have a conversation about growth, career trajectory, and continued improvement.

Bottom line, there are many effective ways to manage and grow teams, but without consistent expectation setting (in whatever form makes sense for you), it will be a long and painful road. Remember the car analogy. Give your team the road to drive down and use the turns/stop signs along the way to help them reach both the company’s and their personal/professional goals.

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