9 min read

The 9-Box Grid: How To Create One, And Why You'd Want To

Rachel Buchanan
Rachel Buchanan January 30, 2023
the 9-box grid how to create one and why you'd want to

What is a 9-box grid?

A 9-box grid is a performance or talent management tool that can be used by managers to assess employee performance. The 9-box grid is a commonly used management tool that can help look at both where employees are in the current ‘right now’ position as well as where you might expect them to progress to, and can be used to gain insight into the actual versus expected performance of a team.

By considering current performance against future potential a team or even an entire workforce can be plotted using nine specific data points.

Low performer / high potentialModerate performer / high potentialHigh performer / high potential
Low performer / moderate potentialModerate performer / moderate potentialHigh performer / moderate potential
Low performer / low potentialModerate performer / low potentialHigh performer / low potential

Why is the 9-box grid important?

The 9-box grid is important as it is a simple tool that can effectively allow you to spot and therefore nurture and support those with high potential, as well as identify those who may be stagnating or benefit from extra support. It can help managers better understand their teams and where issues may be arising and allows senior leadership to more effectively nurture those who may become future leaders.

The 9-box grid is simple to use and easy to understand therefore it is an important management and talent nurturing tool that can be used company-wide for a variety of purposes.

How to create a 9-box grid

the 9-box grid how to create one and why you'd want to

To most effectively create and use a 9-box grid you should follow these four key steps. It is worth spending time on each step to make the most of the tool. Once you have created the grid itself you can then use the results to develop a plan of action concerning employee performance and potential.

1. Define your criteria and benchmarks

Consistency is crucial to the 9-box grid, both those that will be completing the grid and in relation to those that are being assessed, who will need to be assessed using the same criteria. It is therefore essential for HR teams to agree in advance on a set of criteria and benchmarks that will be applied when completing the appraisals and the 9-box grid itself. Without consistency, there is little point in using the grid as a management tool as you will be unable to use it for comparison. It is this preparation that will guide stages 2 - 4.

This preparation might take several forms. You could choose to define the terms of each box and what an employee might have to demonstrate to ‘qualify’ for a particular box. You could choose how you refer to the outcomes of each box and what that means - so, for example, those that might be high-performing employees with high output and potential might have to meet a specific standard to be in the top right box, which you might then refer to as ‘management potential’ or ‘employees exceeding expectation’.

It is also helpful to agree on the plan as to what the outcome will be in progression for the various ranks of employees. Will those who are in the bottom left box (low performance, low potential) be offered coaching, or is that more appropriate for those in the middle boxes?

2. Rate employees’ performance and potential

This is likely to be the most time-consuming part of the exercise as using the criteria and benchmarks decided above, HR teams will need to guide managers in evaluating employee performance and potential.

Managers will need to consider the criteria agreed upon above in relation to each employee, and then meet with the employees to carry out the appraisals, giving the employee adequate time to prepare and provide input into the feedback.

Each employee will need both their performance assessed against their performance expectations as set out by their job description, and ideally also set annually by the employer and employee as part of an ongoing dialogue.

For example:

LOW - the employee has not met the expectations of their annual targets as agreed between the employee and employer to fulfill the obligations of their role and function within the team and wider business.

MODERATE - the employee has met the basic expectations of their annual targets as agreed between the employee and employer.

HIGH - the employee met and has gone above and beyond the agreed expectations of their annual targets.

Each employee will need their potential assessed, which will include considering their behavior, whether they actively look for challenges and ways to expand their role, or whether they just do the bare minimum, and so on.

3. Construct the grid

The construction of the grid will need to be done in collaboration between HR teams and other individuals in leadership roles to accurately determine where employees best fit on the 9-box grid.

Managers will need to refer back to the criteria and benchmark guidelines to ensure accurate construction and completion of the grid. It is most helpful if this stage is as collaborative as possible to ensure the results are as objective and unbiased as possible.

4. Develop a plan of action

The final stage is to create a plan of action based on the results of the 9-box grid. For each employee, you will need to consider where they have landed on the 9-box grid and what that means for that individual, as well as the implications for the team or the wider business.

HR teams will want to ensure that all managers act fairly across all employees so that all are treated following the same plan of action so there can be no accusations of bias or favoritism.

It would be usual to have a different plan of action for each position on the 9-box grid but broadly speaking this may be reduced to the following next steps that can be taken to develop employees based on their current performance and potential.

High performer / high potential - these might be the employees that are most suited to a leadership pipeline or enrolled in the company’s aspiring manager’s program. These might be the employees that are considered for promotion, or to nurture any potential talents they have displayed. HR teams may consider an automatic pay rise or bonus as appropriate.

Moderate performer / moderate potential - any employee who is just simply meeting expectations might warrant further consideration as to why they are simply meeting expectations. Are they new in the role? Have they been in the role too long? Do their targets and job requirements match what they actually have to do day-to-day or has there been any kind of issue in setting targets? Could they be motivated and encouraged with a change of role, or assistance with personal development?

Low performer / low potential - while it may be tempting to leap to consideration as to whether it is time to let this employee move onto a new organization, it is worth remembering new hires are expensive. Careful analysis of any issues both at work and in their personal life as well as whether coaching might be appropriate may be a better first line of action.

Opportunities of a 9-box grid

the 9-box grid

A 9-box grid presents several opportunities for managers and senior leaders:

  • Ease of use - the table is a simple format that can be applied easily across the organization to be used equally by different people or for different teams.
  • Simple to complete - the criteria can be decided in advance and then it is completed by managers.
  • Transparent - as long as it is always used to the same criteria the results of the 9-box grid are clear and can be understood across the organization.
  • Versatile - the 9-box grid can be used as a talent pipeline for succession planning

Limitations of a 9-box Grid

Just as there are opportunities, the 9-box grid also has limitations:

  • Subjective - potential and performance are not in themselves data so it can be subjective. Two different management styles may result in the differing placement of employees on the grid. It is a good idea to try and remain consistent when filling in the grid.
  • Can be subject to bias - as the grid is filled in by an individual that person may be influenced by bias, conscious or otherwise, likewise if the criteria are based on employee surveys there is potential for the 9-box grid to not be an accurate representation.
  • Labels employees - once an employee has been marked in a particular box it could potentially cause that employee to be labeled as one with high or low potential, which could be hard for that employee to shake off (good or bad) if their performance level changes.
  • Old-fashioned - by inviting once-a-year-only reflection this method might be seen as archaic. There has been a move against annual appraisals towards continuous feedback and the 9-box grid is sometimes associated with a more ‘old-school’ approach.
  • Too blunt - used incorrectly there is the risk that it may simply be used to ‘rank’ employees with the name in the bottom left ‘Low performer / low potential’ simply fired, rather than used as a talent pipeline generator.

Key takeaways

The 9-box grid can be a helpful management tool for considering performance and undertaking succession planning. It can be an easy-to-use and transparent way to compare employees and consider who has potential for progression, but it should be used carefully and considerately to ensure it is used to its best advantage.

The 9-box grid is not without its disadvantages and these should be borne in mind. It is a good starting place but should not be used in isolation or to create labels or divisions between employees.

Rachel Buchanan
Rachel Buchanan January 30, 2023

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