Human Resources Management Top talent

9 Box Talent Review: Your Ultimate Guide for Effective Performance Management And Succession Planning


Attracting, identifying, developing, engaging, retaining, and deploying top talent is considered to be extremely important by CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development). The CIPD states that effective talent management and succession planning bring compelling benefits to an organization such as building a high-performance workplace, inclusive and diverse teams, and improved team-wide productivity.

With this in mind, in this FAT FINGER article, we introduce you to the 9 box talent review process. This is a popular method for talent management and succession planning, known for its ease of use, industry-wide application, and visual summary of employee performance.

After reading this FAT FINGER article you’ll be able to define what the 9 box talent review is, and how to use this method for talent management and succession planning. We will also evaluate this method and discuss both it’s benefits and limitations.    

  • What is a 9 box talent review?
  • The functions of the 9 box matrix
  • How to create a 9 box talent review matrix
  • Limitations of the 9 box talent review matrix 

Let’s jump straight to it!

What is a 9 box talent review?

The 9 box talent review is a performance management tool that divides employees into nine groups based on their current performance and their potential performance. 

Ultimately the 9 box talent review is used to improve team performance, by focusing management attention on where in the 9 grid matrix an employee sits. That is, some employees will have huge potential, but their current performance level is low, whereas other employees will not be performing well and have low potential. These two employees require different talent management approaches. 

The 9 box matrix is a commonly used performance management tool for a variety of reasons. The method is easy to use; has industry-wide applications; provides a visual summary of employee performance; allows comparisons to be made between candidates, and facilitates discussions and decision making.

The functions of the 9 box matrix 

The 9 box matrix acts as a talent review process, producing a practical and easy-to-understand framework for performance management.

The method’s four main uses are described below:  

  • Performance tracking: Employee performance is grouped into three categories – low, medium, and high. Information on employee performance is gathered during performance appraisals conducted by the relevant supervisor. Performance is tracked using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and/or Objective and Key Results (OKRs). The three performance categories and possible interpretations are outlined below: 
  1. Low performance indicates that the employee’s skills, attitude, and experience do not match the job requirements. This means the employee is failing to meet their targets. 

2. Moderate performance indicates a partial match between the job requirements and the employee’s skills, attitude, and experience. These employees are hitting most of their targets.

3. High performance indicates the employee completely matches the job requirements and is successfully hitting their targets.

  • Potential assessments: An employee’s potential is also measured during the 9 box talent review process. Employees are categorized as having low, moderate, or high potential. This is about predicting an employee’s future capabilities. The categories are as follows: 
  1. At low potential, the employee is working to their full potential and is not expected to improve. 

2. At moderate potential, an employee has the potential to develop further in their current role. 

3. At high potential, an employee is eligible for a promotion. 

  • Dialogue facilitation: The 9 box talent matrix is a great tool for facilitating dialogue among the senior leadership team with the aim of reaching a consensus on employee evaluation. This creates a shared sense of commitment towards employee development, while also encouraging multiple perspectives for more accurate evaluations.
  • Diagnoses of employee development needs: By providing a visual stimulus, the 9 box matrix is a great way to diagnose employee development needs and aid personal development planning. In this sense, the matrix provides a framework for succession planning, which is the process and strategy for replacement planning or passing on leadership roles. 

How to create a 9 box talent review matrix

The creation of the 9 box talent review matrix can be broken down into three steps, which are discussed below. 

Step #1: Performance is assessed 

Employees are evaluated during their performance appraisals and scored against their targets using a performance scale. This process establishes their performance category. Performance criteria should stick to the job requirements as defined in the job structure, and/or the personal targets for the employee.

It’s important to ensure employee performance appraisals are: 

  1. Job-related and valid
  2. Based on a thorough analysis of the job 
  3. Standardized for all employees 
  4. Not biased according to race, colour, sex, religion, or nationality

Appraisals need to be performed by supervisors who have an adequate knowledge of the employee and job 

With this in mind, it’s best practice to design a standardized appraisal approach that’s used for all employees, but yet is also adapted to each job role. 

Step #2: Assess potential 

Assessing a candidate’s potential takes the information from a performance review and uses this information to determine whether a candidate is working at their full potential or not. Questions are asked to ascertain whether an employee’s full potential could be developed in their current role, or if they are eligible for a promotion.  

There are six universally accepted markers for high-potential employees. These are: 

  • Ability: This relates to an individual’s expertise and innate abilities. Able employees can work autonomously and consistently deliver results. Usually, these employees will achieve a high current performance level. However, it must be noted that poor/moderately performing employees can still have  potential ability. A low current performance could be due to factors such as a  lack of leadership, and poor training. 
  • Aspiration: This is an employee’s desire to grow. This could be growth from developing knowledge or wanting to take on more responsibility. These employees share a desire to achieve individually and as a team.
  • Relationships: Empathy, extroversion, warmth, and social influence have an impact on employee and team performance potential. Employees that can adapt their personalities to different responsibilities and changing circumstances have greater potential.
  • Behavior: Behavior is one of the easiest traits to identify. Employees who have a high emotional intelligence can control their emotions and behave appropriately when under pressure.
  • Adaptability: Adaptability means employees can adapt easily in response to circumstantial change.
  • Leadership qualities: Early markers for leadership qualities include strategic thinking and success in leading small teams.

Step #3: Creating a 9 box matrix (application for performance management and succession planning)

Once you’ve assessed a candidate’s current performance level and their performance potential, it’s time to plot your results using a 9 box grid.

This grid acts as your talent matrix and provides a clear view of where employees, and hence your team as a whole, stand. For instance, if all of your employees occupy the bottom row (high performance but low potential), then they might be completing tasks today, but there’s no growth potential within your team. 

If, on the other hand, your employees occupy the top right (high performers and high potential), then there’s a danger these employees will leave if you do not offer them room for growth and career development.

Different management strategies need to be applied for each employee based on which quadrant they sit in within the 9 box grid matrix. Take a look at the matrix produced below which illustrates this. 

An employee’s performance level and potential determines where, in the 9 box talent matrix, the employee sits. Employees are designated as diamonds in the rough, solid players, backups, or superstars (etc), and each designation determines the talent management strategy. In this sense, the 9 box matrix acts as a performance management tool.

In addition to performance management, the 9 box matrix can also be used for succession planning, to pass leadership roles onto the right candidates. To deliver a robust succession planning approach, leaders need to consider a range of individuals, along with their career development stage. Employee development and how this development will fill successor roles is vital to ensure forward-thinking and progressive teams.

Leadership development, coaching, and mentoring plus regular feedback helps prepare the right employees for their future roles. Superstars can be selected for specific leadership roles, and moderate performers can be trained up to fill vacancies left by this top talent.

Limitations of the 9 box talent review matrix

Categorizing employees according to the 9 box talent review determines what decisions are made about an employee’s development plan, pay, and future opportunities. This approach to talent management needs to be considered along with its limitations to give the most effective results. 

Limitation #1: The method is subject to human error and bias 

The opinions of supervisors can be subjective, skewed, founded from miscommunication, and are prone to innate human bias. Yet the impressions made by supervisors have the power to override facts and figures. This means the impacts of unfounded opinions could last a long time.

There is a danger for the talent review to show favoritism and champion a select few. Boxing employees becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as favorites are supported more, and are more likely to get bigger raises and more recognition. A high percentage of a company’s training and development budget is allocated to this group. 

Employees deemed as having “low potential” and “low performance” fall to the back of the line when it comes to recognition, opportunities, and pay increases. Once labeled as poor candidates, it’s hard for these employees to move past this label and progress.

Limitation #2: Measuring employee potential is difficult 

It can be confusing to separate potential from performance. It’s rare to find an employee who is performing poorly but shows high potential. It’s for this reason that the intrinsic attributes of an employee are considered to decipher their potential. E.g. agility, adaptability, behavior, and relationship skills. However, these characteristics are subject to biased judgments.

To add to this confusion, many who use the 9 box matrix struggle to understand why employees are left in the middle-box categories and what this means. The boxes represent artificial categories that don’t reflect the real world.

Limitation #3: The method is over-simplistic 

Not every employee will fall into the same box in every situation. External factors, such as stresses at home, can influence an employee’s performance at the time of assessment. Plus, it’s hard for an employee to show potential when they’re struggling in their current role. The 9 box talent review process provides a picture but fails to tell the complete story.

Plus, this method focuses employee performance and potential onto the employee, rather than looking at how employees are nurtured. That is, an employee may be performing poorly because they haven’t had adequate training or development.

Limitation #4: Certain attributes are favored above others during employee assessments 

Certain employee attributes are favored above others when assessing an employee’s performance and potential. For instance a AMA Enterprise’s study “Identifying & Developing High-Potential Talentfound the following:

  • 41.6% of supervisors weigh innovative and unique contributions to the business when determining employee potential. 
  • 34.7% of supervisors weigh peer input to determine employee potential. 
  • 17.5% of supervisors reported on an employee’s educational background when determining an employee’s potential. 

It seems the most used criteria don’t include a demonstration of company values, willingness to stretch assignments, and leadership qualities in assessing whether or not an employee is designated as high potential.

Use FAT FINGER to standardize your talent review process

With FAT FINGER you can document your business operations using our easy drag-and-drop checklist builder. Using FAT FINGER’s features such as our Conditional Logic feature, or our Approvals feature to add the complexities of operations into your documented workflow.

Operations are digitized in one space to help keep track of tasks and for ultimate transparency over business operations.

For more information on how to get yourself set up to use the FAT FINGER platform, watch the below video.

But how can FAT FINGER help with employee talent reviews?

You can use FAT FINGER along with your 9 box talent review process to address the limitations of the 9 box talent review process. FAT FINGER mitigates the effects of these limitations by:

  1. Automatically assigning tasks to employees, and notifying these employees of the work that needs to be done, while keeping track of what work has been done. This gives a transparent picture of what an employee is doing. An employee’s progress on a given documented workflow can be compared to the rest of their team to determine their current performance. This works to remove subjectivity and human bias. 
  2. Best practices can be captured in a documented workflow to remove training gaps, and to ensure each employee has enough information to do their job well.
  3. Different departments can be assigned to different tasks within an entire process. Document the 9 box talent review process in FAT FINGER, and assign multiple teams for cross-functional collaboration. This will design a review process that takes information from multiple individuals to remove bias and subjectivity from a select few.
  4. Documenting the 9 box talent review process will give transparency over which employee attributes are given more weight over others. This transparency allows critical assessment of the review process, for continuous improvement.
  5. A standardized method for measuring employee potential can be documented to remove confusion. Supervisors simply have to follow the process to give an accurate measure of an employee’s potential. 

It’s important, when using tools such as the 9 box review process, to understand the limitations of these methods when making assessments. There are measures you can put in place to help mitigate the effects of these limitations, and documenting your business operations in FAT FINGER is one such mitigation approach.