Managing a Diverse Workforce with the Skills-Motivation Matrix

As arborists, we understand that different trees have different needs. We understand that to help trees grow and thrive, we must consider the cultural needs of the tree to provide an ideal environment for growth and development.

To address the specific needs of each tree, we apply our understanding of species profiles and relate those needs to each individual tree, and then assess whether the environment where the tree is growing is meeting those needs. Arborists have a variety of assessment tools and techniques that help us make assessments and provide recommendations. Based on assessments, we arrive at a management plan designed to address the needs and create the conditions most favorable for growth. This process of assessment and targeted management techniques enables arborists to manage a diverse range of tree species by matching the unique needs of each species to the specific management approach.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to create an environment conducive to the growth of those we lead and manage. To do this, we must apply similar approaches as those mentioned previously. Doing so helps leaders create the ideal conditions for individual growth based on everyone’s specific needs. Accordingly, this approach helps leaders target their efforts to create the most benefit for all involved. Additionally, this approach helps leaders manage a diverse workforce through applying management tools with varying levels of direction or supervision based on each person’s specific level of skill and motivation.

The process of creating a culture that supports growth for trees or people has similar elements. Specifically, there is a process of evaluation and assessment to determine the need, accompanied by a tool or technique to meet the need or improve the condition. In this way, arborists use science to improve the way we manage trees. Similarly, talent-development professionals use science to improve the way we manage people. The skills-motivation matrix is one example of a science-based leadership and management model created by talent-development professionals. The matrix provides leaders with a framework for development activities based on everyone’s unique needs.

This article discusses the skills-motivation matrix and how leaders can use the matrix. By assessing skills and motivation, leaders can respond to everyone’s unique needs by applying targeted tools and techniques designed to create the most favorable conditions for maximum individual growth. In this way, the skills-motivation matrix helps leaders create a work culture supportive of individual growth, which promotes increased engagement and improved work performance. This is because the matrix provides leaders with a framework for individual assessments and then suggests a management plan that is designed to address the individual need by providing the conditions most favorable for growth.

How the matrix works

The skills-motivation matrix provides tools to manage a diverse workforce according to varying levels of individual skill and motivation. Specifically, the management tools in the matrix help leaders alter their management approach according to different contexts and situations. More important, the tools help leaders respond to the varying needs of each unique individual. According to the model, individuals will fall into one of four quadrants based on their respective levels of skill and motivation. As such, there are four possible combinations within the model (See Image 1). These include:

  • Low skill and low motivation – Q1
  • Low skill and high motivation – Q2
  • High skill and low motivation – Q3
  • High skill and high motivation – Q4

The specific management tool associated with each quadrant is representative of varying levels and support or direction needed by the individual who falls within each respective quadrant. In this way, the matrix prescribes different leadership behaviors according to where each individual falls. Accordingly, the matrix presents leaders with a management tool specifically designed to respond to the unique needs of each person based on their respective levels of skill and motivation. This is how the matrix helps leaders create favorable conditions for individual growth by addressing the individual need with a management tool that responds to the individual.

Image 1: The skills-motivation matrix provides tools to manage a diverse workforce according to varying levels of individual skills and motivation.

Personal profiles

To do this, it is helpful to think of the management tools from the matrix as being based on a personal profile. People with varying levels of skill and motivation have different needs from their leaders. By matching the need and tool to the person, the leader can adjust their style according to the unique context and situation. In this way, the personal-needs profiles help the leader frame the management conversation while applying the appropriate management tool suggested by the skills-motivation matrix. Each quadrant, therefore, has a corresponding management tool based on the specific needs of each person, as well as a different frame for the conversation and management approach. (See Table 1).

Table 1: Management tools and tactics should change depending on where an individual falls on the skills-motivation matrix.

Working your way through the matrix

Working your way through the matrix is a three-step process. The first step is to evaluate everyone according to skill and motivation. This enables the leader to determine the specific personal profile and the unique management tool and approach needed for that individual. Accordingly, the second step in working your way through the matrix is to match the personal profile with the management tool and approach. As we discussed, this involves a conversational frame that provides structure for the application of the management tool. It is important to keep in mind that working your way through the matrix is a continual process. Because people are constantly changing and evolving, we should expect to see levels of skill and motivation change over time as people develop. In this way, the leader using the matrix understands the need to alter their approach according to context and situation.

Assessing skill

The first steps of assessment are crucial for the proper application of the tools from the matrix.

Begin by assessing individual skills. There are many different methods and means to do this, and each leader will have their preferred method. For example, many organizations have job descriptions that detail the specific skills required of each role. Given that each skill is composed of specific individual behaviors, skill level can be verified by the observation of those behaviors. Climbers must demonstrate proficiency in the skill of tying knots. This is something that is done every day in this role. As such, a proficient climber would be able to demonstrate tying, dressing and setting a set number of knots in a predetermined timeframe. This is a means to verify proficiency in a skill set.

A leader can further refine their assessment by observing the quality of the behavior. The quality of the behavior demonstrated will be a clear indication of overall skill. A highly skilled individual would demonstrate an ability to perform the task beyond basic proficiency with higher quality of behavior. For example, a lower-skilled climber might be able to tie the knots within the allotted timeframe, while a higher-skilled climber would be able to tie the knots faster, while explaining the importance of properly tying knots. Additionally, a highly skilled climber might be able to demonstrate other knots beyond the scope of the basic requirements.

Assessing motivation

Motivation is complicated. Because of this, I will simply provide a framework for assessing motivation with some general principles. In an organizational setting, a motivated employee is typically described as “engaged.” We can all think of examples of what engagement looks like in our own organizations. Specifically, engagement is demonstrated in the behaviors of individuals. Like skills, certain behaviors can be observed that will indicate an individual’s level of motivation.

For example, a motivated person will show their engagement with what is called discretionary effort, or what they do that is above and beyond the basic requirements. A motivated person might volunteer to work overtime or help on a project that is beyond their job scope. As such, we can assess motivation by what people do to make a positive difference. In this way, the level of discretionary effort seen in each person can provide a basis for assessing their level of motivation.

Once you have made your assessments of skill and motivation, you can work your way through the matrix. Do this by assessing, matching and applying the specific management tool with the unique personal profile.

Applying the tools

The disillusioned learner is low in skill and motivation. The matrix tells us that the management tool most helpful for this person is supervision. Direct supervision can help motivate people while building their skills. To frame the conversations around this tool, think of, “I see what you need, I’ll guide you.” In this case, direct supervision can be very powerful in building motivation and skill, because it requires intense focus and communication while you’re guiding this person through the process.

In contrast, the rising star is low on skill but highly motivated. For this reason, the rising star just needs training and coaching. Their high levels of motivation and self-direction enable them to progress with skills development very quickly. In this way, the conversation with the rising star is framed by the question, “What’s your maximum potential?” It is the leader’s job to help the rising star make this happen.

The person who is burned out has a high level of skill, but they are lacking motivation. Their work performance reflects this lack of motivation. For this reason, the conversational frame for this profile is, “How can I help you get re-engaged?” Through providing support to this person, the leader can hopefully help this person re-establish their motivation. Leaders who can facilitate this end up with a worker who is highly skilled and highly motivated.

A highly skilled, highly motivated person is a top performer. This profile is characterized by the levels of engagement and their consistency in the execution of job tasks. For the top performer, the key question is, “How far do you want to go?” Through a combination of development activities and task delegation, the leader can help the top performer reach their highest potential, which is beneficial at all levels of the organization and industry.

Stepping into the matrix

According to the matrix, each personal profile requires a different management tool. This is because each profile has different needs. By continually assessing skill and motivation, leaders can apply targeted tools and techniques designed to create the most favorable conditions for each unique individual as they grow and develop. In this way, the skills-motivation matrix helps leaders focus their management activities based on individual need. Stepping into the matrix helps leaders create a work culture supportive of individual growth. This, in turn, promotes increased engagement and improved individual work performance across teams, the organization and the industry at large.

Bill Owen, CTSP, QCL, is director of operations with BrightView Tree Care Services – NorCal Tree in Martinez, California, a division of BrightView Tree Care Serv

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