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9-Box Grid Talent Management: Benefits, Uses, and Limitations

9-Box Grid Talent Management: Benefits, Uses, and Limitations

The benefits of an engaged workforce are well documented. Companies with engaged employees are 23% more profitable than those without, and are on average are 18% more productive. But employee engagement doesn’t just happen. It’s fostered through deliberate talent management practices that identify and reward employees for their impact and commitment to the company. 

Talent management is an integral part of employee well-being and organizational performance. And the lifeblood of talent management is being able to keep close tabs on the performance and potential of each individual employee. One tried and tested tool for establishing that benchmark?

The 9-box grid. 

This article will introduce the concept of the 9-box grid, explain its benefits, and shed light on some of its limitations.

What is talent management?

Talent management refers to the processes, tactics, and strategic initiatives that dictate how companies recruit, train, and retain employees. 

It’s an all-encompassing term that includes virtually all stages of the employee lifecycle. This includes: 

  • Workforce planning
  • Hiring and onboarding
  • Employee performance management
  • Training and development
  • Succession planning
  • Total reward and compensation

McKinsey sums up “talent management” like this: 

“Talent management includes all the ways that organizations bring employees on board, keep them happy and productive, and help them continue to develop their skills over time.” 

As you may have guessed, the 9-box grid is one tactic that relates to one sub-component of talent management. Specifically, benchmarking and assessing employee performance. 

What is 9-box grid talent management? 

The 9-box grid is a well-known and well-used talent management tool for employee assessment and benchmarking. It works by dividing employees into nine groups based on their performance and perceived potential within the organization.

Here’s an example of the categories that employees might fall into in this grid-based assessment system: 

Low Moderate High
Low performer, high potential Low performer, high potential High performer, high potential
Lower performer, moderate potential Moderate performer, high potential High performer, moderate potential
Low performer, low potential Moderate performer, moderate potential High performer, low potential 

Using this system, managers can assess employees based on two key variables: 

  • How well they’re performing today
  • How well they’re likely to performance in the future 

By going through this categorization exercise, managers can better understand the types of players they have on their team. This ensures that they can manage each individual appropriately. 

High performers with high potential, for example, will likely be interested in more challenging assignments that allow them to grow into the next phase of their career. Lower performing employees with moderate to high potential, however, might require more hands-on coaching to ensure they can reach their current and future potential. 

At the HR management level, the 9-box grid offers a high-level, visual snapshot of the workforce. This allows HR teams to identify gaps and areas of potential that will help inform their ongoing talent management, hiring, and workforce planning strategies. 

Pros and cons of the 9-box grid 

As you can likely imagine, the 9-box grid isn’t without its critics. While it’s a simple and effective way to categorize and visualize where employees fall on the performance/potential spectrum, it does risk oversimplifying the many nuances that are inherent to each individual employee. 

Still, it’s a popular technique that’s been used in talent management circles for years. Let’s look at the pros and cons of the 9-box grid so that you understand both sides of the argument. 

Advantages of the 9-box grid

The argument in favor of the 9-box grid technique includes: 

  • Ease of use. Managers simply need to review each employee’s strengths, weaknesses, and performance to data, and then assign them to the corresponding box. It’s easy to teach, easy to implement, and quick to read in meetings with senior leadership This makes it a powerful tool for communicating key takeaways and benchmarks to streamline strategic planning and decision making. 
  • Increased transparency. Completing the grid requires open communication between employees, managers, and HR. As each stakeholder works through the process, these discussions help to clarify expectations and goals for the company to ensure that all parties are aligned on a path forward. 
  • Streamlined workforce planning. This technique allows HR to easily benchmark the types of employees they have on staff, and take inventory of specific strengths, weaknesses, and gaps across departments. This helps with identifying potential leadership development opportunities, and requirements for hiring. 

Drawbacks of the 9-box grid 

As mentioned, the 9-box grid isn’t perfect. Here’s why. 

  • It can be imprecise. How does each manager define performance and potential? What criteria are used to move employees from one category to another? Are those criteria standardized? When the methods of assessment and categorization don’t match up across teams, and departments, the results can be muddied, inconsistent, and unfair. 
  • It ignores nuance. By definition, this type of categorization ignores nuances that make every person unique and capable in a workplace. This technique requires managers to grade everyone on the same curve, rather than accounting for the wide range of different personalities, goals, and values that exist on a team. This risks simplifying employees to a single point on a grid, and failing to take into account who they are as individuals. 
  • It can be highly subjective. This technique is only effective if steps are taken to remove or limit bias from the assessment process as much as possible. Evaluations based on personal preference open the door to a wide range of issues, ranging from outright discrimination to personality mirroring. To get around this, assessments need to be based on objective performance scoring, 360-degree reviews, and structured, standardized assessments. 

9-box talent management: an example 

While there’s arguments to be made for and against this technique, there are instances where it’s a valuable tool. Take the following example…for example. 

Let’s say your organization is pursuing a new strategic initiative—entry into a new market with a new service line. There’s a department within your organization that has the skill sets and knowledge needed to spearhead this strategic initiative. 

But, the team isn’t organized yet, and you need to cherry pick individuals to lead and contribute to the new project. To do that, you need to know who the high potentials are (i.e. who could step into a leadership role) and who the best candidates are to handle project execution (i.e. individual contributors). 

Using the 9-box grid method, you can assess and categorize each employee within this department and flag the following categories:

  • High potential, high performance (star performers). These are potential leaders that can be trained or deployed immediately as team leaders for this new initiative. 
  • Moderate potential, high performance (key contributors). These are individuals with a track record of impact and strong results. They can be selected to spearhead new initiatives and drive projects forward due to their skills and knowledge. 
  • Moderate potential, average performance (core team members). These are team members who make an impact, but are happy with where they are. They can be brought on as extra legs to complete tasks and extend resources, or kept in their current roles to “keep the lights on”. 

By working through this categorization process, leaders can quickly identify team members to bring onto the new project, and who needs to stay put so as to not disrupt existing priorities. 

9-box grid assessment questions 

Ideally, assessors will be coming to this exercise with some level of objective insights into how the employee performs, and what their potential is. These insights can come from: 

  • Performance and people data
  • Peer feedback and 360-degree reviews
  • Personal observations 
  • Impact metrics and results 

All of the above will help the assessor benchmark the employee’s performance. This, along with insights about the employee’s ambitions, development activities, and initiative to take on more responsibilities, will help inform which category is assigned. 

Armed with this objective information, managers can then ask themselves: 

“Does this employee’s performance exceed, meet, or fall below expectations relative to their job description, skill level and years of experience?”

This one question should be enough to categorize the employee based on their performance. Potential is a bit trickier. To reach this conclusion, consider the following questions: 

“If this person were promoted into a role with more responsibilities tomorrow, would they be able to meet those challenges?” 

“Do you feel confident this person has the drive and ability to learn new skills and context to perform at a higher level than they are now?” 

“Has this person demonstrated leadership abilities on their own?” 

“Has this person challenged themselves with flex projects or new challenges?”  

“Does this person actively seek out opportunities to learn new skills, take on new challenges, and extend their knowledge?” 

The answers to each of these questions will help form a complete picture of that employee’s potential as it stands today. Still, assessors must try to remain objective during this process to ensure that personal biases don’t come into play. 

How Homebase can help manage your 9-box grid

Data plays a central role in ensuring objectivity and fair categorization in a 9-box grid assessment. Homebase tracks and surfaces a wealth of data that can help to create a picture of each employee’s performance, including information about attendance, punctuality, onboarding completion, and team communication history. 

Want to see how Homebase can help with your talent management efforts? Get started today