9 Box Grid: The Definitive Guide (Free Template)

Mai 4, 2023 | Performance Management

What is a 9 box grid? In a nutshell, it’s a valuable performance management tool. The 9 box grid gives you a quick-reference visual of employee performance and potential. This tool can serve as your succession planning roadmap, helping organize your thoughts as you plan for the future.

Designed by McKinsey in 1970, the 9 box grid has long served as a key management tool. At that time, GE began using it for their in-house assessments. It quickly grew popular for its ability to provide a holistic measure of employee value. Rather than just looking at current and past performance, it factors in future potential.

Table of Contents

1. How the 9 Box Grid Works

2. What a 9 Box Grid Is Used for

3. Advantages of Using a 9 Box Grid

4. Disadvantages of Using a 9 Box Grid

5. How to Complete a 9 Box Grid

6. How to Create a Performance Management Action Plan with the 9 Box Grid

7. The Bottom Line on the 9 Box Grid for Performance Management

How the 9 Box Grid Works

The 9 box grid has an X axis for performance and a Y axis for potential. Each employee is assigned to a cell in the grid matrix based on where they fall within each axis. “The higher an individual falls on the boxes, the more potential they show for growth; the farther right they fall, the better their performance reviews,” explains Sarah K. White on CIO.com.

Each cell should contain a concise but detailed description of an employee at that juncture of performance and potential. Instead of generic labels like “future leader,” use a grid with clearer terms, like in this sample 9 box grid.

Using a numbering system for the cells in the box aids in discussing results. In the sample grid below, we use the numbering system outlined by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). The top-right quadrant, box 1 shows employees who are candidates for advancement in the next 6 months. In the same quadrant, boxes 2, 3, and 6 show employees who might move to box 1 over a longer timeframe. 

Free Template

Low PerformanceEffective PerformanceOptimal Performance
High PotentialBox 5:Experienced and capable employee but is facing roadblocks to heightened success. Discuss and address hurdles with coaching or training.Box 2: Performs well in current role but has room for growth within it.Provide opportunities to expand responsibilities with mentoring and support.Box 1: Demonstrates outstanding ability in current role and high potential to advance. Solves problems, thinks strategically, and remains highly driven and disciplined.
Moderate PotentialBox 8:Could deliver more value in current role with proper training and support. Help the employee set reasonable stretch goals for strengthening performance in this role.Box 6: Could increase responsibilities with training and support.Focus on setting stretch goals within technical or human skills. Box 3:Highly competent in current role but not yet ready to excel as a leader.Coach the employee on improving strategic thinking to contribute more value in current role.
Low PotentialBox 9:May need to be reassigned to a new role or a lower level. If that is not viable, may need to be discharged from the organization.Box 7:Displays competence in role but is not currently a candidate for advancement.Focus on providing coaching in creative thinking or helping the employee to upskill for a new potential role.Box 4:Performs at a high level in current role but may not be a candidate for a higher-level role. Remains valuable and could improve potential by building leadership or technical skills.
Modified from a tool by SHRM.

Tips on Interpretation

Employees who fit into the top-right box are your self-starters who thrive in their roles. These star employees are ready—or nearly ready—for the next level. Focus on boosting their confidence and continuing to invest in their next-level development.

Meanwhile, employees in the bottom-left box may not have a future with your company. Consider whether they just need a change of role, though. If so, think about whether a transfer to another function or level would be viable. If the employee lacks motivation to change, however, this may not be feasible.

What a 9 Box Grid Is Used for

Man and woman discussing a 9 box grid on a laptop
Credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels

A 9 box grid has two main uses: improving current performance and maximizing future potential. When used strategically, a 9 box grid can equip employees to succeed in their current roles. As discussed, it will also identify star employees and help prepare them to advance in your organization.

Let’s discuss these two main purposes in more detail.

Performance Management

The 9 box grid can help you connect employees with the support they need. You’ll clearly see who needs additional training in their current role—or for a future position. In short, it shows you where you need to invest in your employees. It can also reveal skill gaps at different levels.

The 9 box grid can also help your company assess its performance management. HR should look at distribution percentages for employees at different points on the grid. This can reveal how well the organization is managing its employees. 

Managers can also review their 9 box grids to assess whether they’re successfully developing their direct reports. HR can review the scores that individual managers are giving their teams, too. If direct reports mainly score in the bottom left quadrant, the manager may need training.

Succession Planning

A 9 box grid also aids in succession planning by assessing each employee’s performance and potential. This tool can help illuminate how to provide diverse employees with the support needed for advancement. Based on the findings from the 9 box-assessments, HR leaders can make recommendations for promotions.

Advantages of Using a 9 Box Grid

Let’s briefly recap the key advantages of a 9 box grid. 

First, this tool gives you a clear and simple method of assessing employees. It helps you easily evaluate all employees by a similar yardstick. Managers and HR can then provide support where needed. Specific employees who fall into different boxes can even be grouped together for training.

Additionally, it focuses on the future as well as the past. Typical evaluation methods tend to focus on past results. But this tool recognizes that future potential should influence how you invest in employees, too.

Plus, using the 9 box grid can increase transparency. HR can easily see how managers score employees, even if employees don’t see the scores. That means HR can review the fairness of evaluations using performance management data.

Further, the 9 box grid will help an organization make wise talent management decisions. It will help star employees stretch their skills, while providing others with the right coaching. 

Disadvantages of Using a 9 Box Grid

Is the 9 box grid outdated? In our opinion, it remains useful when used correctly. However, we would like to share a few words of caution.

Placing an employee in the wrong box can have serious consequences—for the organization and for their career. In particular, be cautious about placing employees in the bottom-right box of the grid. We believe it’s unlikely that any high performers are truly low potential. Instead, high performers who appear to have low future potential may be facing situations like these:

  • Their job is being phased out, so they need to make a career change.
  • They need the confidence and skills to step into leadership positions.
  • Their manager is viewing them through a biased lens.

Rather than writing them off as “low potentials,” help them upskill. Or, help them address barriers like lack of belief in themselves. If their manager appears to be biased against them, work to address the situation.

Additionally, biased ratings can emerge because the grid is somewhat subjective when used by itself. Instead, managers should review specific job criteria when rating employees.

How to Complete a 9 Box Grid

Woman drinking hot drink looking at 9 box grid on laptop
Credit: Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

First, you don’t actually need to create the 9 box grid from scratch, unless you want to. Instead, you can use the above template and modify it if desired. Consider criteria you use for advancement and performance assessment to make any necessary changes. Reviewing performance review rubrics can give you useful phrasing for the 9 box grid.

To complete the 9 box grid, you’ll walk through this exercise for each employee:

  • Review an employee’s job description when evaluating them. Otherwise, as mentioned, ratings may be somewhat arbitrary. Have a printed copy of these descriptions in front of you for easy reference.
  • Assess their level of performance. How well are they meeting or surpassing specific expectations for their role? Are they meeting KPIs? Use performance tracking software to reach objective conclusions. Give them a performance score of “low,” “medium,” or “high.”
  • Assess their future potential. Have they been investing in their own growth? How well is it paying off? Do they display the human, strategic thinking, problem-solving, and technical skills to advance? Rate their potential as “low,” “medium,” or “high.”
  • Find where the two overlap on the grid. This is the block that best describes the employee’s mix of performance and potential. Plot them onto the appropriate block on the grid.

Rather than just checking a box, write a narrative explaining your findings. That way, when you share them with employees and HR, the ratings are easy to understand. You don’t need to say, “You’re a number 5.” After all, you don’t want them to feel like they’re being ranked. Instead, this writeup will help you clearly explain where they stand.

Then, discuss your findings with other managers. This will help determine if each manager is making fair assessments. HR can set up and structure these meetings.

How to Create a Performance Management Action Plan with the 9 Box Grid

Close up of 2 people meeting and taking notes about 9 box grid
Credit: Alex Green/Pexels

When using the 9 box grid, assessing employees is the first step. After identifying where they stand, take action. Create a performance management action plan based on their current status and potential. Here, we outline the key steps:

  1. Evaluate whether an employee needs human skills, technical abilities, or higher-level thinking skills. To advance to a leadership position, a high-potential employee will need strong interpersonal and critical thinking skills, for instance.
  2. Consider the nature of the support the employee needs. Here are a few examples:
  • Employees with high potential but lower performance may benefit from mentoring that helps them harness their abilities. They might be intelligent people who haven’t built up their problem-solving muscle. 
  • Low-potential employees with moderate performance may need a lot of hand-holding. They may especially benefit from guidance and real-time feedback throughout the work day. Similarly, medium-potential employees with low performance need intensive support. 
  • Employees with high potential and high performance may simply need regular feedback as they take on stretch assignments.
  1. Consider whether outside influences are affecting employees’ performance or potential at any level. For example, have they experienced stressful life changes? Are they struggling with work-life balance that is lowering performance? While the 9 box grid is an important tool, it doesn’t provide the full picture.

    So, ask employees one-on-one about their challenges.
  2. With these factors in mind, set goals with the employee. Outline specific skills the employee must develop. Together, set KPIs for each one. Create a timeframe for when you hope the employee will achieve them. 
  3. Set a training and development plan. Provide specific steps to take in order to develop the needed skills. Share resources the employee can use as well. Ask the employee about the need for any additional resources and support.

The Bottom Line on the 9 Box Grid for Performance Management

Don’t let the 9 box grid dictate whether you invest in an employee. Unless you need to let an employee go, spend time developing them. Training and mentoring shouldn’t just be for star employees, but for everyone. The 9 box grid should just influence how you develop them.

The 9 box grid shouldn’t be your sole evaluation method. Instead, view it as a tool as part of a robust performance assessment plan. When used well, 9 box grid aids in making strong talent management decisions that build a capable workforce.

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