Sarah K. White
Senior Writer

What is the 9-box talent review? A matrix for identifying top performers

Apr 15, 2022
IT Training Staff Management

The 9-box talent review grid is a popular HR tool used to measure employee performance and to identify employees with leadership potential.

mature female executive evaluating talent
Credit: Lisa Weatherbee / Cavan Images / Shutterstock

What is 9-box talent review?

The 9-box talent review grid is a popular HR tool used to measure employee performance and to identify employees with leadership potential.

Created by McKinsey in 1970, 9-box talent assessment was used by GE to identify key investments and to compare various business units. The process later evolved into a widely used HR tool to assess the performance and potential of employees within the company using the 9-box talent grid or matrix. This visualization tool divides employees into nine groups to identify high-performers and ensure employees get the right training, coaching, mentoring, or talent development they need to succeed.

Part of the popularity of the 9-box assessment is that it can provide a more holistic view of employee performance. The process enables companies to assess an employee’s current performance and their future potential in the organization. The 9-box grid helps identify potential leaders in the organization, which is helpful for succession planning, and can inform businesses on where to invest in training and mentorship.

For example, an organization may have an employee who is underperforming but shows high potential and can be steered in the right direction. Or you might have an employee who is high performing but doesn’t have the potential or desire for a leadership role. In this way, the 9-box talent assessment can help your organization get a clearer picture of where it stands on talent development.

What is a 9-box talent review grid?

A 9-box talent assessment grid contains nine categories or boxes set up in a three by three matrix. The horizontal axis indicates performance, and the vertical axis indicates potential from low, moderate to high.

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. Those who fall on the low side of the grid show less potential; and the farther left they fall, the worse the performance reviews. With this as the setup, employees who are assessed to be in the bottom left category are the lowest performers, and those in the top right category are the highest performers.

In between the lowest and highest performers are 7 other categories to identify a worker’s potential and performance. This is useful for identifying talent in the organization that could benefit from additional training or coaching to reach their full potential or to improve performance.

How to use a 9-box talent review grid

The first step in using a 9-box grid is to assess an employee’s performance, which is typically done by evaluating performance reviews, reviewing self-evaluations or using talent management systems. Managers are tasked with ranking employees based on performance and behavior, and then those rankings are passed onto upper management and leaders who can then identify and rank employees for their leadership potential. Employees can rank as low, medium, or high performance depending on how well they meet the requirements of their role.

Low-performing employees are those who do not complete job requirements and regularly fail to meet assigned KPIs or other benchmarks. Employees who fall into the medium category are those who meet expectations part of the time and complete job requirements half of the time. High-performing employees reach all their necessary benchmarks and job duties, often surpassing them. 

Despite the fact that the 9-box grid puts an emphasis on the highest and lowest performers, it’s not designed to pit workers against one another or to make them feel as if they’re being ranked. Instead, it’s meant to be a way to identify opportunities for talent development and leadership potential, as well key areas for cultivating talent through coaching, training, mentorship, or leadership development. As such, organizations need to be mindful of how transparent they are about the process and what they decide so share with employees.  

9-box grid template

The general template used for the 9-box grid consists of a three by three grid that ranks performance and potential by low, medium, and high. The names of each category may vary by company, but according to WorkDove, these are generally the categories included on a 9-box grid:

In the left column, categories could include:

  • Potential Gem: an employee with high potential and low performance who is a candidate for additional training to improve their performance.
  • Inconsistent Player: an employee with medium potential and low performance who is tagged as needing coaching to improve performance.
  • Risk: an employee with low potential and low performance who may need to be let go or reassigned to another job or department to help boost their performance and morale in the company.

In the middle column, categories could include:

  • High Potential: an employee with high potential and moderate performance who has the potential to do better and will benefit from more challenging tasks and stretch assignments.
  • Core Player:an employee with medium potential and moderate performance who falls right in the middle of the grid. These employees may be having some issues at work but are viewed as capable and will benefit from mentoring to improve their performance.
  • Average Performer: an employee with low potential and moderate performance who might benefit from stretch goals and coaching.

In the right column, categories could include:

  • Star: an employee with high potential and high performance who performs consistently and is self-motivated. These employees are typically identified by upper management as having leadership potential within the organization.
  • High Performer: an employee with medium potential and high performance who has reached their career potential in the organization and who benefits from delegation.
  • Solid Performer: an employee with low potential and high performance who is effective at their role but has likely reached the limit for career potential. These employees can benefit from mentoring to boost performance.

Benefits of the 9-box talent grid

When used correctly, the 9-box talent grid holds can help companies identify where and how to invest in talent. It helps upper management and leadership get better insights into employee performance and who to keep an eye on for succession planning. With a comprehensive view of the organization’s talent pipeline, the 9-box talent review gives businesses a holistic picture of talent development needs.

Organizations that collect regular data around employee performance will benefit the most from the 9-box talent review. Objective data works best with the 9-box talent grid and helps avoid any unintentional or intentional bias that might muddy the results.

One of the biggest benefits of the 9-box talent grid is identifying the most valuable talent in the organization. Understanding who your highest performers are can help inform talent retention and development strategies. Companies can get a clear picture of where and how to divert resources to support these high potential workers.

For those who fall outside the highest performance, the 9-box matrix can provide insights into how to support employees who may benefit from more training or mentorship. It is a useful tool for developing necessary performance management action plans to retain and develop talent within the organization.

Criticisms of the 9-box talent grid

The 9-box talent assessment isn’t without its flaws — especially as some companies move away from the traditional annual performance review process. Performance reviews can be subjective, relying on a manager’s personal judgment and rating. And because they typically happen only once a year, that doesn’t leave room for regular feedback, which can help employees course-correct throughout the year as needed.

Companies such as GE, Adobe, Microsoft, Accenture, and Deloitte have shifted to processes that allow for continuous feedback, delivering more consistent insights into employee performance and potential. Even with continuous feedback strategies, however, the 9-box talent template can still be useful for identifying the organization’s highest and lowest performers. And with more regular feedback, management will have more data to use when placing employees on the grid.

Because the 9-box talent review is subjective in nature, it potentially leaves the process open to bias and discrimination. There’s also the potential for the results to be skewed due to miscommunications with managers or personal biases in the organization. It’s best utilized when organizations have access to objective performance data, such as KPIs or other metrics that help measure performance. There’s also the potential to limit employee growth by labeling them — it’s all too easy for an employee to be labeled under one category and to be stuck there for years.

Some argue that the 9-box talent review is too limiting and look to a 16-box talent review instead. With a 16-box talent review, there’s more variability in the categories by adding in a fourth label under potential and performance. Instead of low, medium, and high, the 16-box talent review measures by low, low-mid, mid-high, and high. This allows for a broader scope to categorize employees and allows for more nuance in the rankings.