9 Box Grid: What It Is & How to Use It For Hiring | Toggl Hire
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9 Box Grid: What It Is & How to Use It For Hiring

Mile Živković Mile Živković Last Updated:

What if solving all of your talent management problems was as easy as playing tic tac toe? With a 9 box grid, that’s basically what you’re doing, as it provides hiring managers and talent management teams with a simple and efficient way to map out existing employees and their skill sets, as well as plan for the future.

TL;DR — Key Takeaways

  • The 9 box grid is an easy-to-use HR tool for analyzing employee performance and potential.

  • You can use it for talent management, succession planning, identifying skills gaps, and building upskilling programs.

  • While they are versatile and easy to use, 9 box grids are also highly biased, which is why it is good to use them in combination with other talent management tools.

  • Depending on where an employee falls on the grid, there are different actions you can take, like upskilling low-scoring but highly motivated employees, to improve company outcomes and help boost the employee’s future development.

What is a 9 box grid?

The 9 box grid is a grid with nine fields — the vertical ones describe employee performance at different levels (low, moderate, and high performance), and the horizontal ones describe their growth potential (low, high, and moderate potential).

what is a 9 box grid example
Use this 9 box grid template to build your own matrix.

While you can create names for each category of employee, like “future leader” for a high performer, the function of a 9 box grid is to help you determine employee performance and potential for future growth, as well as help plan ahead for future hiring needs.

By taking a look at past performance and future potential, you can:

  • Identify potential successors for leadership roles and promotions

  • Identify a high or moderate potential high performer who could benefit from skills training

  • Assess who isn’t currently meeting your performance expectations

  • Plan ahead to develop employees according to business goals

  • See what’s lacking within teams to figure out which roles you need to hire for in the future

Because of its ease of use and wide range of applications, the 9 box grid is one of the most popular talent management tools today.

When to use a 9 box grid

The 9 box grid is most commonly used for workforce planning or assessing employee performance. However, it can just as well be used for recruitment and hiring.

Assessing employee performance

For performance management purposes, take a look at each individual role and define what makes someone a low, moderate and high performer. Ensure the manager and the employee are both aligned with those expectations, as hiring teams often forget to clarify leaders’ expectations.

Then, based on each employee’s performance, place them in one of those three boxes. On y-axis, describe the employee’s potential to succeed in that role in the future months or years. Think about the following:

  • How they’ve progressed in their role up until now

  • What room they have for growth in their existing role

  • What other role(s) they could grow into

  • Whether there is another department or role that would be best suited for them

Based on a combination of these two criteria, you can then place each employee into one of the nine categories in the grid to gain a clear understanding of each employee’s current performance.

Top tips to enlarge those brains Top tip:

If you want to use the 9 box grid to assess an employee’s performance, ensure that you have strict criteria for performance in each role, and that both the employee and their manager know them. It’s also helpful to define what the different levels of potential are within your organization (they can change from one company to the next and even within different departments) and how they can be assessed and measured.

Workforce or succession planning initiatives

Succession planning in the context of talent management is all about planning ahead to ensure high performers not only stay in their roles but get promoted to strengthen the business and overall performance.

Good succession planning ensures that high performers are rewarded, that your turnover rate is healthy, and that you have competent leaders. The quickest way to identify those high performers is to glance at a 9 box grid to see which employees meet performance expectations and can become future leaders.

For example, if someone has high potential and moderate performance, it means (in most cases) that they can be coached to grow in their role and get promoted. On the other hand, someone with low potential and high performance is usually better off staying in their existing role.

Hiring to fill skills gaps

A 9 box grid can also be used to find skills gaps and fill them. Once you’ve completed the 9 box grid, you’ll have a full overview of your current performance.

Not only that, but you can easily see which skills you’re missing to reach your next big business goal. Or perhaps, you can find out if there is a skills mismatch for a particular team member.

For example, let’s say you notice that a certain department has a lot of low performers with low potential. In this case, succession planning and upskilling likely aren’t effective options, and you’ll need to hire new employees.

If the 9 box grid shows you that an entire department is full of employees with low performance and low potential, it’s a clear sign to start hiring for those missing skills.

A skills gap analysis is one of the most effective tools for upskilling or hiring for a better workforce.
Here’s how to perform a skills gap analysis after identifying gaps in your 9 box grid.

Bear in mind that you can encourage more productivity, but it’s very difficult to replace potential in an employee. When potential is missing, it’s high time to get to hiring.

Depending on what the 9 box grid shows you, you can adjust your job descriptions and recruitment strategies, too. For a role that requires potential and leadership development, stress the ability to grow in a role. For a role that requires high performance, stress the ability to get work done and follow deadlines.

Building upskilling programs

Lastly, the 9 box grid is an excellent tool to use when you need to visually see which specific skills you’re lacking in an employee, department, or business. Aside from using this knowledge for succession planning and identifying a high-performing employee, you can also use it to build upskilling programs.

Just map out the skills you’re missing and determine the ideal way to upskill employees in those areas. Some effective ideas include additional mentoring and coaching, purchasing training materials, or allowing low-performing employees to shadow senior leadership to gain the skills needed to succeed.

After a period of time (at least a few months), you can fill out the 9 box grid again to see if the employees you wanted to upskill are showing progress and whether your upskilling programs are effective or not.

Benefits of using a 9 box grid

The 9 box grid is one of the most used HR tools for a good reason. Here are some of the most important benefits of this type of potential and performance values matrix.

  • Easy to use: You don’t need HR knowledge or training to get started. For most, it’s as simple as creating a box in Excel or Word and filling it out — it doesn’t have to be fancy!

  • Doesn’t require specialized tools: Again, something as simple as an Excel sheet is a good starting point for creating a 9 box grid. Who doesn’t love a free tool for assessing potential?

  • Extremely fast: If you have all the data points, you can complete a 9 box grid for an employee or team very quickly.

  • Various use cases: From performance management to succession planning, upskilling, and hiring — the 9 box grid is a versatile tool most HR teams can use and repurpose.

Drawbacks of using a 9 box grid

While the 9 box grid is a great performance management tool, it’s not perfect, especially when trying to engage in unbiased hiring practices. Here are some of its downsides.

  • It’s highly biased: Everyone has their own idea of what qualifies as high performance and high potential, and it’s incredibly easy to accidentally introduce unconscious bias when filling out the grid.

  • It’s inefficient when used improperly: For example, if you only fill it out based on annual performance reviews. Instead, use it continuously throughout the year to evaluate progress.

  • It’s even more inefficient when it’s not based on a scale: Without proper parameters based on the right development strategies or hiring goals, you risk employees or candidates being ranked against each other instead of a common standard they need to achieve.

  • Need to be objective: In many businesses, the 9 box grid isn’t used with objective data points as standards for an employee’s performance.

How to create a 9 box grid

Creating a 9 box grid is extremely easy.

On the y-axis, plot your employee’s future potential in one of three boxes:

  • High potential

  • Moderate potential

  • Low potential

Then use the x-axis to plot their current performance:

  • High performer

  • Moderate performer

  • Low performer

The end result is the talent management version of tic tac toe.

You can then name and categorize each of the nine squares however you want. For example, someone with low performance and high potential could be called “a future star.” On the other hand, someone with high performance and low potential could be called “a solid performer.”

Performance

When assessing employee performance in the 9 box grid, keep a few things in mind.

  • Set clear expectations for each employee

  • Set goals for each role

  • Communicate regularly with each employee

  • Introduce performance metrics to determine success

This ensures that your 9 box grid is relevant, objective, and easy to interpret and analyze.

Potential

Unlike performance, potential can be a bit more difficult to measure, so here are some tips to help.

  • Evaluate current performance even when accounting for future potential

  • Identify the key skills and competencies needed for a role and determine if the employee has them

  • Determine the employee’s levels of ambition and motivation

  • Determine their levels of learning agility

  • Determine their leadership qualities

  • Assess their soft skills (problem-solving, communication, collaboration, etc.)

Focusing on these qualities for each employee will help you fill out the 9 box grid more easily and accurately. The more you can tailor the criteria to each employee’s position, the better.

Analyzing the 9 box grid

Having a completed 9 box grid for each employee is just a starting point. You have all the data, but now comes the hard part — analyzing the results to determine where each employee stands.

The ultimate goal should be to create an action plan based on the data you have. This could be to train existing employees with an upskilling program, promote them, or hire new employees. With those goals in mind, here are some of the most common categories in the 9 box grid and what to do with them.

Underperformers

These are employees with low performance and low potential. This is arguably one of the worst and most difficult categories to work with. Many times, they’re simply bad hires with no promises of improvement. What’s even worse is that they can influence others, and high performers need to make up for the lack of effort.

Next steps

There are several steps you can take when dealing with underperformers:

  • Identify roadblocks to higher performance and motivation

  • Place them in another department or role where their talents can fully shine

  • Put them on a performance improvement plan

  • In the worst case, let them go so they aren’t a burden on the rest of the team

Be careful not to invest too much time and resources in this category, as you should save your investment efforts and energy for employees with slightly more potential.

Inconsistent yet effective employees

These are employees who have the potential to be great but, for whatever reason, are consistently underperforming. With their poor or average performance, they’re not living up to their true capabilities. If you invest time and resources, however, they could become an asset and perhaps move into leadership positions in the future.

Next steps

Just like with the previous group, there are several things you can do to rectify poor performance and get more out of this employee group:

  • Identify the reason why they’re underperforming (poor onboarding, not enough coaching, unclear expectations)

  • Pair them up with a more experienced coworker

  • Enroll them in an employee training or upskilling program

  • Give frequent and honest feedback to help overcome performance barriers

Solid, trusted professionals

These are employees with high performance and low potential. They’re constantly exceeding performance expectations, but you’re not likely to develop future leaders out of this group, as they simply don’t have the skills or interest required to evolve into those types of roles. Nevertheless, they’re valued team members, and you want them around in your company.

Next steps

For this group, this is usually the proposed action plan:

  • Provide plenty of feedback to engage and motivate them to stay

  • Figure out what motivated them and reward them for their high performance (but not too much to the point where they lose ambition and drive)

  • Ensure you’re offering them competitive compensation based on market rates

High-impact, growth employees

These are employees who have high growth potential and are currently only performing at a moderate level. The reasons for this could be many, but oftentimes, they haven’t fully grown into their role. These employees are highly valuable talent, and your goal should be to explain their expected future behavior and help set them up for success.

Next steps

When you evaluate employee performance and find employees like these, you want them to move into the top-most future leader category. Here are a few starting points to help you help them get there:

  • Give them enough time to grow into their roles before evaluating their performance

  • Consistently praise accomplishments and encourage them to achieve their individual and department goals

  • Provide measurable expectations and explain how performance scores work for their role

Future leaders

Performance reviews show that these employees exceed expectations, and they also have high potential for future growth. You want to ensure you identify these employees quickly and invest in them because they can easily move into new roles in the leadership team. These employees are the crux of your future internal mobility strategy.

Next steps

You want to spend the most effort on employees with a high growth potential. Here are some ideas:

  • Assign them challenging and meaningful tasks

  • Maintain open and honest communication and find out when they are ready to move into a more challenging role

  • Pair them up with someone from the leadership team who can give them suggestions on how to grow even more

  • Reward them according to their contribution and give them frequent raises

Implement skills-based hiring in your recruiment process

Tips for using a 9 box grid

For the best talent management, employee development, and training, just having a 9 box grid isn’t enough. We’ve already outlined a few best practices, but here are some more you should consider:

  • Update and review over time. As employees develop their skills, a 9 box grid you made a year ago no longer reflects the real state of affairs. Keep it up to date to ensure better succession planning and talent management.

  • Be as objective as possible. Having viewpoints from managers is fine, but it’s a highly subjective opinion, and unconscious biases happen often. Try to quantify and measure performance whenever possible.

  • Use feedback from multiple sources. Direct manager’s review, 360-degree feedback, data from your proprietary tools, and others.

Given the highly biased nature of the 9 box grid, ensure it’s not the only tool you use for employee development and performance evaluations.

Alternatives to the 9 box grid

HR professionals have quite a few alternatives for situations in which a 9 box grid falls short because of biases or lack of precision. Based on our internal hiring strategies and anecdotes, here are some of the ones we suggest trying.

Data-driven insights

Data analytics and technology can help you quantify an employee’s performance during the talent review process. You no longer have to rely on statements such as “meets expectations.” Instead, you can see that someone makes 20 sales per day where the quota is 15 and that they are indeed a high performer.

Toggl Hire allows you to quantify hard and soft skills, making it a more accurate alternative to 9 box grids.
Assess employees using skills testing to gain data-driven insights into their potential.

Data-driven insights allow you to not only accurately measure performance but also set clear goals and expectations for your employees.

For example, you can use Toggl Hire’s skills assessment tests to determine how proficient someone is at development, product management, or SEO. This allows you to:

  • Measure their current performance in terms of quantifiable results

  • Compare their performance over time to see if they are improving or not

In addition to qualitative feedback, data-driven insights can give you a more accurate view of your employee’s performance over time, as you can compare test data over any given period.

360-degree feedback

360-degree feedback entails feedback from multiple sides: direct manager, subordinates, and peers. Instead of a single point of view, you get multiple ones so you can compare them and keep them in mind when evaluating potential or performance.

This type of feedback comes with its own set of challenges, though. To ensure your 360-degree feedback initiative is fair and successful, do the following:

  • Try to make the feedback anonymous

  • Give clear objectives and communicate them to all the participants

  • Provide training on how to efficiently provide this type of feedback

Mentoring/coaching

Mentoring and coaching can give both low-performing and high-performing employees guidance and support to grow in their roles.

Instead of following cookie-cutter templates, mentors and coaches can give personalized feedback to employees. They can find areas for improvement both in terms of the employee’s potential and performance and cater sessions according to each individual’s needs, interests, experience, and goals.

Skills mapping

Skills mapping is the process of identifying, evaluating, documenting, and mapping skills to roles and tasks. Basically, it’s like creating an inventory of the skills your team already has and then running that against the tasks and roles you need.

As the global skills gap continues to grow, skills mapping will become an increasingly critical part of identifying skills gaps, prioritizing your needs for training and development, and planning for your future talent pipeline.

Assess employee potential with skills tests

The 9 box grid is a simple and efficient way to compile a lot of important information about your employees in one place and guide your talent management efforts. However, these manual matrices aren’t the most accurate tool out there, and you need accurate ways of measuring skills proficiency and potential.

With Toggl Hire, you can test your employees’ skills and determine their current performance and future potential. Over time, you can test them again and determine if they’re improving on a performance scale and if they have what it takes to be a true leader or not.

Ready to get started? Create your free account to assess employee skills with custom-built questions!

Hire top talent with skills assessment tests
Mile Živković

Mile is a B2B content marketer specializing in HR, martech and data analytics. Ask him about thoughts on reducing hiring bias, the role of AI in modern recruitment, or how to immediately spot red flags in a job ad.

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