What Is the 9 Box Grid? Free Template and Best Practices

Laura Francis


What Is the 9 Box Grid? Free Template and Best Practices

Modern wisdom (and decorum) usually says that it’s never OK to put people in a box. And yet… anyone who’s worked in talent development can tell you that boxes are incredibly useful, especially when you’re talking about rating systems like rubrics. Case in point: the 9 box grid. This boxy little gem is one of those not-so-secret secrets that talent management professionals use to chart a course for both individual growth and organizational success.

If you’re willing to be a bit of a rebel and shirk that common wisdom about people and boxes, you can take full advantage of how effectively the 9 box grid will help you navigate the employee lifecycle. It’s a useful strategy for understanding everything from retention to succession planning.

Below, we’ll cover the 9-box grid’s basics, how to use it properly, and some ineffective uses that you should avoid.

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What Is the 9 Box Grid?

At its core, the 9 Box Grid (also known as the 9 Box Talent Review) is a visual tool for categorizing employees based on their performance and potential. The two primary corners of the box grid include a high performance, high potential matrix, and a low potential, lower performance one. Everything in between consistent of different combinations of the two.

Originally developed by the strategy and management consulting firm McKinsey & Company as they worked with General Electric (GE), the GE–McKinsey nine-box matrix has been around since the 1970s. Back then, it was used to “determine where best to invest its cash.” The firm used the 9 box grid to “judge a unit by two factors that will determine whether it’s going to do well in the future: the attractiveness of the relevant industry and the unit’s competitive strength within that industry.”

As you’ve probably noticed, the 9-box grid was originally designed for business units, not individuals within a business unit. However, the matrix was quickly adopted by HR professionals to assess employee performance and potential. Nature has taken since its course, so to speak, and the 9-box grid has become an essential tool among talent development leaders.

You can leverage the 9 box grid in many different ways, but it’s particularly useful for:

  • Identifying high-potential employees or high performers for leadership roles
  • Assessing the current workforce for strategic planning
  • Pinpointing areas where employees can improve or advance

One study also wrote, “This [9 box talent review process] activity is the first step in organizing a structured succession plan for any department.”

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The matrix is divided into 9 sections (hence the name), with the vertical axis representing potential and the horizontal axis indicating current performance. The grid ranges from low, medium, to high on both axes, which creates a comprehensive snapshot of where employees stand in terms of their current value to the organization and their future growth prospects.

9 Boxes, Explained

Now that we have a basic understanding of what the 9-box grid is, let’s dive into how each metric is positioned in terms of employees’ characteristics and development opportunities.

1. Low performance, low potential

Employees in this category consistently fail to meet basic job requirements and show little to no willingness or ability to improve. This could indicate a poor fit between the employee’s capabilities and the job’s demands or a lack of motivation.

The very first thing to do here is to be compassionate. Consider offering targeted support, including training, mentoring, or adjustments in their role. If there is no significant improvement, it may be necessary to consider reassignment to a role that better fits their skill set, reclassification to a lower level, or, ultimately, a respectful and fair transition out of the organization.

2. Low performance, moderate potential

These employees are currently underperforming and may struggle with their job duties. However, they demonstrate some capacity and willingness to improve and can take on more responsibilities in the future.

The question to answer here is: What is holding them back from reaching their full performance? This could be due to a range of factors such as lack of clarity on expectations, misalignment with their current role, skill gaps, or even personal issues. With this in mind, one-on-one mentoring and setting stretch goals can motivate and guide them toward better performance.

3. Low performance, high potential

This group consists of employees who are currently underperforming but have significant growth potential. They may have valuable inherent abilities or characteristics that are not being fully utilized in their current roles, such as learning agility, emotional intelligence, and resilience, to name a few.

The focus should be on finding the right environment or role that can harness their potential. This may involve more significant changes, such as a role change, alongside comprehensive development plans that include mentorship, training, and possibly rotation through different parts of the organization to find a better fit.

4. Moderate performance, low potential

These employees meet job expectations but do not consistently exceed them. They are reliable but show limited interest or ability to move beyond their current role or take on significantly more complex tasks. They may be satisfied with their current role, prefer a better work-life balance, or feel that they have reached a comfortable level of expertise. These are not necessarily a bad place to be in, as not everyone aspires to climb the corporate ladder or take on increasingly complex challenges.

While they might not be ideal candidates for succession planning, make sure they have a clear path for continued contribution. For example, encourage them to become a subject matter expert in their area so they can offer valuable insights, mentor newer employees, and lead initiatives within their expertise domain.

5. Moderate performance, moderate potential

These employees perform their duties adequately and occasionally exceed expectations. They show interest in personal development and have the potential to take on greater responsibilities, possibly moving into higher roles with further development.

Work with these employees to create personalized development plans that align with their career aspirations and the organization’s needs. This could include targeted training, workshops, and courses that fill in gaps in their skills or knowledge. Match them with mentors to accelerate their development and encourage them to step out of their comfort zones. Provide opportunities to lead projects or small teams to assess their readiness for more significant roles in the future.

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6. Moderate performance, high potential

While their performance is generally solid, what sets these employees apart is their clear potential. They are seen as capable of significantly more than what their current role demands and could rapidly grow into leadership positions.

What truly makes these individuals unique is even if they are currently not in a leadership role, they may naturally take the lead in group situations. With that in mind, challenge them with achievable tasks that stretch their abilities and stimulate growth. At the same time, it is crucial to equip them with leadership skills development and facilitate interactions with senior leaders. This could be through job shadowing, leadership mentoring, and involvement in strategic projects.

7. High performance, Low potential

These employees are top performers who consistently exceed job expectations. However, they may be content in their current role or show little to no interest in or suitability for taking on roles with greater complexity or leadership requirements – all of which are not a reflection of their abilities.

💡 As a business, losing high performers, regardless of their leadership potential, is the last thing you need. They often contribute significantly to the company’s success thanks to their exceptional skills, productivity, and the high standards they set.

Focus on retention strategies such as recognition and rewards, which do not always have to be promotion-based; they can include bonuses, public acknowledgment, or other forms of appreciation that align with their values and desires.

Granting more autonomy or creative freedom in how they approach their work can also be a powerful motivator. What’s more, their extensive knowledge and skills in their area of work make them excellent mentors. They can serve as role models for work ethic, professionalism, and excellence in execution. Newer employees can learn a lot from their dedication, work ethics, and how they achieve high performance. When they are formally recognized as mentors, a sense of progression and acknowledgment naturally follows, even if they are not moving up in the traditional sense.

8. High performance, moderate potential

Not only do these employees excel in their current roles, but they also show a good capacity for growth. Their performance is not just a series of isolated successes but a consistent pattern of excellence. They are interested in advancing their careers and have shown they can handle more responsibilities, making them strong candidates for promotion to higher roles.

Apart from personalized development plans that prepare them for more complex roles, those with more seniority (which can be their line manager, HR, or even board members) should mentor and help them visualize a clear career path within the organization. With a clear understanding of what is required at each step on their career ladder, they can continue developing their skills and contributions.

It is also crucial to facilitate opportunities for them to network with leaders within and outside the organization. This can open up new paths for development and career advancement.

9. High performance, high potential

These are the star employees who not only excel in their current roles but are also viewed as future leaders. They have demonstrated exceptional ability and ambition to take on significant new challenges and leadership positions, often being prepared for top roles.

These are also the employees that’ll hurt your business to lose. Predictive Index found that 47% of high performers quit for another employer in 2021.

What distinguishes these employees from the rest is their high emotional intelligence, including self-awareness, empathy, and the ability to manage relationships. These highly sought-after leadership qualities allow them to navigate complex social dynamics effectively. That’s a tough pill to swallow (and a tough act to follow), especially since high performers can be as much as 800% more productive than their peers in highly complex roles, according to McKinsey & Company.

Image from McKinsey and Company report on high perfomers as example for 9 box grid analysis.
Source: McKinsey & Company

If businesses need to keep these individuals around as highly skilled individual contributors, it is a no-brainer to actively include them either in succession planning or in productivity incentive and bonus programs. Pair them with senior leaders as mentors, and, perhaps most importantly, empower them with the autonomy to make decisions, both within their projects and on overarching, strategic levels.

What Are the Benefits of the 9 Box Grid?

We now know that the 9 box grid can provide a visual presentation that helps in identifying, developing, and retaining talents within the company. Let’s dig a little deeper into how it can benefit your employee management strategies.

Provide clear visualization of the talent pool

As mentioned earlier, the 9-box grid offers a straightforward visual representation of where employees stand in terms of their current performance and future potential. This makes it easier for HR to identify high performers, high potentials, those who may need development or improvement, or even gaps in their talent pool. This can inform recruitment, training, and development strategies to address these gaps.

Facilitate succession planning

When high performers/potentials are identified, organizations can plan for future leadership roles and other critical positions. This helps build a robust pipeline of talent and ensures that there are capable and ready individuals to fill important roles as they become available or as the need arises.

Support employee development

The grid also helps identify areas where employees can develop, which, in turn, can guide personalized development plans. By targeting specific areas for improvement, employees can grow within the company, whether they are moving up in their roles or gaining breadth in their skills and experiences by moving into different roles. These growth opportunities are key drivers of job satisfaction and can significantly contribute to retaining talent within the company.

Encourage objective assessments and data-driven decisions

When used correctly, the 9-box grid encourages managers to assess performance and potential objectively. Data collected and analyzed also supports more informed and evidence-based decision-making. Collectively, this aids in reducing bias and promoting fairness in talent management decisions.

Improve employee retention

Given that 1 in 2 US employees are open to leaving their organization, employee retention should be a priority for any HR leader. By investing in development and clearly communicating potential career paths within the organization, companies can enhance employee engagement and retention, particularly of those identified as high potentials or high performers.

Limitations of the 9 Box Grid

Despite the benefits, the 9 box grid still faces criticism, especially regarding its potential for subjective assessments and oversimplification of employee capabilities.

  • Oversimplification of complexity: The 9 box grid oversimplifies the complexity and nuances of human performance and potential into two dimensions, which might not capture the full picture of an employee’s capabilities or growth trajectory.
  • Potential for misuse: If not implemented carefully, the 9 box grid can be used in a way that demotivates employees or pigeonholes them into certain categories. This can significantly hinder their growth and do more harm than good to their career progression.
  • Time-consuming: The evaluation process, along with the necessary training for managers/evaluators, data collection and analysis, and feedback sessions, is time-consuming. This can be a significant drawback, especially in fast-paced or resource-constrained environments.
  • Bias and subjectivity:  Despite its objective appearance, the placement of employees on the grid can still be subject to managerial bias and subjectivity. This can stem from a manager’s or evaluator’s personal feelings, experiences, or perceptions rather than objective analysis of an employee’s performance and potential.
  • Dynamic nature of performance: Just like how humans constantly evolve and improve, employee performance and potential are dynamic and can change over time. This requires the grid to be regularly updated (which, again, can be incredibly time-consuming) to remain accurate.

None of these objections or limitations mean you should absolutely dispense with the 9 box grid. Instead, it’s a call for a careful consideration to how you use the tool. As with any talent development strategy, you should avoid trying to extend its functionality beyond its capabilities.

Don’t worry; we get the irony in that statement, considering the fact that the 9-box grid was originally designed for something completely different. However, any development and measurement tool made for humans needs to be approached with equity in mind. If the way you’re using the tool feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

How to Use 9 Box Grid: Best Practices

If you want to implement the 9 box grid within your organization, here are some best practices and considerations to keep in mind.

Define clear criteria

The criteria for evaluating performance and potential must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) in order to reduce subjectivity (which is one of the biggest disadvantages of the 9 box grid as discussed earlier) and ensure a fair and consistent evaluation process. As an example,

  • Performance could be measured by achievements relative to goals
  • Potential might be evaluated based on demonstrated leadership qualities and learning agility.

Think long and hard whether the criteria can actually capture the full spectrum of employees’ skills and attributes relevant to both their and the organization’s success, including adaptability and innovation.

Use it as a development tool

Focus on using the grid as a developmental tool rather than a punitive one. Provide clear development paths and support for employees in all grid categories.

Kevin Coyne, a notable McKinsey & Company alumnus, emphasizes that point:

A very important aspect of using the matrix is to understand that placing a business unit in one of these nine boxes is the start of process not the end of the process.”

This approach focuses on growth and learning, which encourages employees to actively engage in their own development plans. It is worth noting that this whole process (that also needs regular updates) requires that the organization has the resources and infrastructure to support personalized development paths.

Incorporate a mixture of assessments

You cannot expect anyone’s performance and/or potential to be assessed properly or fairly if it’s based solely on managerial judgment.

Incorporate a mix of assessments, such as:

Using multiple assessments will give you a holistic view of an employee’s capabilities. Make sure you define the weight given to each type of assessment and how to balance quantitative achievements with qualitative traits like leadership potential.

Transparent communication

Clearly communicate the purpose, process, and implications of the 9-box grid to all stakeholders. Transparency helps in managing expectations and mitigating potential concerns of bias or unfair treatment.

Transparency about the process, criteria, and outcomes helps demystify the 9-box grid for employees, potentially increasing buy-in. However, transparency also demands that management be ready to have difficult conversations about development needs and performance issues.

Avoid labeling

Be cautious of the labels used to describe the categories within the grid to avoid demotivating employees. Emphasize growth and development opportunities.

The language used in the 9-box grid can significantly impact employee motivation. Terms like “low performer” can be stigmatizing, whereas “developing performer” suggests the potential for growth. The challenge lies in creating a culture where all feedback, even if critical, is viewed constructively.

Training for evaluators

Begin by ensuring that all evaluators (line managers and department heads, for example) thoroughly understand the 9-box grid, how it functions, and especially what constitutes low, medium, and high performance and potential.

Make sure they are trained on how to:

  • Recognize and mitigate unconscious bias, such as gender, age, or race bias
  • Deliver constructive and actionable feedback, and
  • Formulate and communicate development recommendations that are tailored to each employee’s specific circumstances and career aspirations

It is also ideal to provide evaluators the opportunity to practice using the 9-box grid in controlled settings and receive feedback on their evaluation skills. Consider facilitating workshops where evaluators assess mock profiles and discuss their rationale for their decisions in a group setting for peer learning and supervisor feedback.

This 90-second video from LifeWay Leadership offers an excellent, simple overview of how the 9 Box Grid can be used with Succession planning.

Integrate with HR processes

The 9-box grid becomes more powerful when put to work with other human resources processes for unified talent management strategies. This can range from performance management, learning and development, and succession planning. However, making the most of this approach depends on whether you have robust HR systems and processes in place.

When these processes are effectively aligned, organizations can better identify, develop, and prepare their employees for future roles. It helps in making strategic decisions about employee development and career progression.

Think outside the (9) box (grid)

There’s a lot to think about before launching into the 9 box grid at your own company. If there are a few things you can take away from this, we hope you think about:

  • How will you define “high potential” across different job functions, and does this definition align with the future skills needed by the organization?
  • What process will you establish to ensure calibration across different departments and managers to avoid bias in ratings?
  • What specific developmental plans will be implemented for employees categorized in different boxes?

Success here does not just mean turning every underperformer into a star performer. Sometimes, success is about finding the right role where the employee can contribute effectively, feel more engaged, and have a clearer path for growth that truly resonates with their purpose.

And what better way to achieve this than facilitating a meaningful mentoring relationship where employees, regardless of which box they are positioned in, can receive tailored guidance and support they need to grow in their careers.

Book a demo today and see how MentorcliQ can help you develop high potentials and future-proof your leadership pipeline! 

Laura Francis

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