Situational Leadership Matrix (Simplified version)

After managing different teams of various background and scale over the years, I’ve always thought the question “what is your leadership style?” is almost a trick question. An executive from another company once shared with me a framework he learned at one of the leadership classes he took at Harvard.

It seems like the original version of Situational Leadership is a bit more complex, but the simplified version he shared made more sense to me and felt more applicable to everyday managers.

As in all business matrix, we start with a 2×2 matrix — one axis being the competency and the other axis being the level of motivation. And of course, up-and-to-the-right is the place we want to be in. But the essence of this matrix is not what your leadership style is, but what the situation of the person you’re trying to lead is.

  1. High motivation, high competency: This is your rock star team member in-the-zone. As a leader, you just need to provide a high-level/strategic direction or goal and get out of the way. You delegate.
  2. High motivation, low competency: This person is eager to get things done and is energized, but doesn’t really know what needs to be prioritized or how things are done. Think of a high-caliber employee who graduated from university. Wants to get things done but will make a ton of mistakes along the way. This is where you coach and provide specific guidance towards success and growth.
  3. Low motivation, high competency: A person who probably was once capable, but lost energy and motivation. You want to provide care, support, and thoughtful feedback. This person might be burnt out, or going through a personal life crisis, so you want to be supporting.
  4. Low motivation, low competency: You have to be directive to the point of micro-managing to help this person learn the ropes quickly and also achieve quick wins to gain motivation. This person also might be in a wrong role / position. In this case, you want to guide the person to a different role in your organization or even outside of the organization.

It’s critical that you apply the right kind of leadership based on the person, or it will simply fail. For example, if you try to direct someone who’s highly competent and motivated, the person will not only fail to add high value to the result, but also loose motivation along the way. Or if you delegate to a person who’s highly motivated but not yet competent, you’re basically setting that person up for failure as well as making people around that person miserable as well.

A leader also may have a bias towards certain style of leadership (e.g. “I like to delegate”), so it’s important to build self-awareness around your own tendency. Of course, one may be tempted to apply a consistent style across everyone, and expect your team members to adapt to you instead, but this only limits your ability to lead and work with a wider range of high caliber people, so it’d be wiser to invest in expanding your own leadership skills.

* This material is part of the employee onboarding session we host at SendBird.

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