What is the 9-Box Model? An Employer’s Guide


The 9-box model is a well-known and widely used talent assessment tool. By giving employers the ability to understand their workforce’s current performance and future potential, the 9-box model can be effectively leveraged for succession planning and supporting employees to grow professionally.



But given that it’s such a manual and simplistic framework, does it really work? Is it worth using in a modern workplace? And what is its link to employee experience?


In this article, we walk you through what the 9-box model is and how you can integrate it into your talent management processes.


What is the 9-box model?


The 9-box model, often also referred to as the 9-grid model or 9-box grid, is a talent assessment tool that gives employers a visual representation of their workforce’s current performance and future potential.


By mapping performance against potential, you can pinpoint employees who are currently delivering to a high standard and who are also expected to excel in the future. On the other hand, the 9-box model also helps you to identify ‘bad hires’, under-performers, or employees who are meeting expectations but lack potential.


How does the 9-Box Model work?


In this section, we’ll take a look at how the 9-box model actually works.


The 9-box model is fairly simple and straightforward to draw up:


  • The X-axis represents performance

  • The Y-axis represents potential

  • As the name suggests, the graph is then divided into 9 boxes that map from low performance & low potential to high performance & high potential

Using this graph, you should be able to place your workers according to their performance and predicted potential. That being said, as you can see, the basic labels are extremely simplistic and leave no room for nuance.


For these reasons, many HR departments that employ this tool choose to clarify each label or add their own criteria.


Low performance & low potential


The 9-box grid starts with employees who display low performance and low potential. Workers who fit into this category are usually ‘bad hires’ or ‘talent risks’ whose underperformance and lack of potential HR needs to address.


Usually, their lacklustre output is a result of a mistaken hiring process that has resulted in an employee who doesn’t meet expectations or align with workplace values.


High performance & high potential


By contrast, the high-performance and high-potential box in the top right is where all of your workers who consistently deliver exceptional results and are projected to continue strongly performing should go. These employees are your high-value workers and future leaders.


Why is the 9-Box Model Useful?


The 9-box model is not for every workplace, and that’s understandable. Here are a few of its advantages and disadvantages:


Advantages of the 9-Box model


The 9-box model has several important advantages. Let’s take a look:


Simple and easy to use


One of the biggest pros of the 9-box model is how easy it is to use and how simply it helps to visualise your workforce.


Visual map of workforce’s profile


The visuality of the 9-box grid is very effective in helping you to map your workforce’s profile.


Supports employee growth


The 9-box model is an effective tool for understanding who you can (and should) support in developing professionally. This could include providing opportunities for training or further education, for example, and is essential for the employee experience.


Effective for succession & workforce planning


In the same vein, the 9-box model helps to effectively plan on how you will grow your workforce, whether you need to replace existing talent, and who has the potential to move up the ranks.


For example, if you find a significant portion of your employees fall into the low-performance and low-potential box, this may indicate that you need to address problems within your hiring process.


Quickly identifies strengths and weaknesses


Though some people feel that the 9-box model is overly simplistic, it’s also popular because it visually lays out your workforce’s overall profile in a very straightforward way. This is especially useful when applied to specific portions of your business because you can identify where you are lacking necessary talent.


Disadvantages of the 9-Box Model


Here are some of the disadvantages of the 9-box model:


Too label-oriented


Some HR professionals see the 9-box model as overly label-oriented, boxing employees into binary categories that leave too little space for nuance.


Can rely on abstract & arbitrary judgement


Similarly, the 9-box model can be divisive because without a proper set of determined metrics and criteria, some people can fall into the trap of categorising employees into high and low performance and potential using arbitrary reasoning.


Subjective


Another potential weakness of the 9-box model is that it can become a highly subjective exercise. This is why it’s important to base your measurements off a robust set of pre-determined metrics and standards.


How to use the 9-Box Grid Model effectively


To draw the most value out of the 9-grid model, it is not enough to simply draw one up and place your employees into their corresponding category. Here are a few tips on using the 9-box model effectively:


Think about how the 9-box model will fit in to your current frameworks


The 9-box model isn’t a static formula, you can make it your own to ensure your business properly benefits. That’s why it’s important to roll-out the 9-box model in line with your current practices and frameworks.


What this means is opening discussions with your HR department and understanding how the 9-box model will best support and develop existing talent management tools and frameworks.


By involving your staff in the primary stages, you’ll be able to ensure that both you and your business draw the most value possible out of the 9-box model.


Set standard criteria for measuring performance and potential


As we mentioned previously, it’s important to lay out a set range of criteria that align with each level of performance and potential. There is no one-fit formula for this, so you can develop this in line with what suits your workforce.


For example, when you’re measuring performance, you should assess whether an employee is letting down, meeting or exceeding the expectations for their position. You should consider how well they are fulfilling their responsibilities and whether they consistently meet team or individual targets.


Measuring potential is a little more difficult. But you can start by looking at factors such as whether an employee is clearly motivated, whether they are actively developing their expertise, or whether they have already assumed a leadership position.


Use the 9-box model at different levels


Though the 9-box model can provide key oversight and a broad view of your whole workforce’s profile, it’s also a valuable tool for looking at specific departments in granular detail. Encourage your HR professionals to employ the tool at various levels to get the maximum level of detail possible.


Don’t use the 9-box model in isolation


In a similar vein, it’s important not to rely on the 9-box model alone. Ensure to use it alongside other tools and frameworks to ensure you get a balanced picture of your workforce and individual employees.


This is also why it’s important to use the 9-box model consistently to track performance and potential, rather than relying on one-time results.


Leverage your results


The 9-box grid is only the start of the conversation. Once you’ve mapped your workforce onto it, you need to consider what each employee’s category means:


  • For high-performers with high potential, how can you support them into the next stage of their career whilst maintaining their momentum? Have you provided enough room for progression and growth, or do you need to support them more proactively? Are you doing enough to retain your best performers, or are some of them feeling overwhelmed and burnt out? For example, nearly 9 out of 10 employees see admin automation as the direct responsibility of employers – and would change jobs if you fail to achieve that.

  • For employees who fall in the middle without actively disappointing or exceeding expectations, what do you need to do to motivate them or help them to improve? Is there something you could do on your end to help them progress? Improving the employee experience can be instrumental in motivating them to achieve more.

  • If you have low performers with little potential, do you need to think about letting them go? Does this indicate problems with your hiring or management practices?


Asking these questions is key to harnessing the insights that the 9-box model aims to give you about your workforce. From there, it’s about making use of your findings to support your workforce and effectively manage your existing and future talent.


Understand the link between the 9-box model & employee experience


Fundamentally, the 9-box model is a means to an end. It gives you key insight into your workforce’s performance/potential profile, and can indicate whether you need to be doing more to support your most valuable and high-potential employees. This is where employee experience comes in.


Employee experience is multi-faceted and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how employers can consistently optimise and improve their workforce’s overall satisfaction. However, given that employee experience has been shown to directly correlate to organisation-wide performance, it’s definitely worth taking the time to understand what you can do better.


For instance, one of the biggest pain-points that is often overlooked is the negative impact of excessive and cumbersome admin. By choosing to prioritise employee-oriented platforms such as Zelt, you’re putting your employee experience first. You’ll see increases in productivity and output, elevated satisfaction, and help to support your employees in outperforming expectations and reaching their potential.


Is the 9-box model right for your business?


The 9-box model doesn’t work for all businesses, and that’s understandable. More important is the larger conversation around talent management, performance, potential and employee experience.


At the end of the day, all employers want to populate their workforce with exceptional employees who exceed expectations and possess a large amount of potential. The question is, how can employers nurture this invaluable potential and hold on to such high-value employees?


Given that workers who are satisfied and report good employee experience are 8 times more likely to want to stay, it seems that employee experience is definitely key to success.