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Daniel Lucy

Roffey Park Institute

Head of Research

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The Nine Box Grid: The problem with identifying ‘potential’


Use of the Nine Box Grid, or variations of it, is widespread in organisations and is commonly used to identify talent within the organisation, particularly those with high potential. 

Despite its widespread use, views appear mixed on its utility; if anecdotal conversations with HR folk are anything to go by. 

How open should you be with employees about ratings?

Organisations implementing the grid typically face the dilemma of whether or not to be open with employees about where they have been placed on it.

Roffey Park’s research found that secrecy was more prevalent than one might expect – one in three employees had not been informed of their rating, whilst a further one in five did not know whether they had been rated or not.

Organisations typically avoid telling employees about their box rating for fear that they might ‘turn off’ significant numbers of employees who perform well, but are not considered to have high potential. For example, in organisations that use a forced distribution of rankings on the grid, four-fifths of employees may fall into a ‘core employee’ group.

Such employees are important to the organisation but, based on the grid, are not considered ‘stars’. On the other hand, unless employees know their rating, the organisation cannot be sure whether they are counting someone as potential who does not wish to be, for family or other reasons.

One could question how you can ever really assess whether someone should be classed as 'potential' or not without speaking to them about their motivations and aspirations for the future. 

What should HR do about this?

There is no reason for thinking they are caught on the horns of an unresolvable dilemma. The answer most likely lies in equipping managers with the skills to hold effective conversations with the staff they manage.

Our research demonstrated that managers need more support in how best to hold conversations with employees at different stages of their employment lifecycle, and with different types of employees (our research identified particular types of employee that managers found most difficult to rate; for example ambitious employees seeking quick progression).  

Ultimately, a conversation around an employee’s box rating should be an opportunity to learn more about that individual, their motivations and aspirations, and how best they can be supported and motivated.

Defining what potential means

A central challenge for many organisations is working out what potential means in their business context. Potential for what? Is it leadership potential? Or potential to becoming a top sales manager? Or an expert in a particular field? Should there be multiple definitions of 'potential', and associated career pathways?

Employees valuable to the success of a business are overlooked because they do not fit an off-the-shelf definition of potential

There are many models of potential, most of which involve a combination of emotional intelligence (interpersonal skills and drive), and ability (cognitive intelligence).

Many models also now include learning agility, defined as the capacity to adapt to new situations applying learnt skills and habits. Whilst there is similarity across the many models of potential, it is a mistake for organisations to simply introduce a model without thinking about how to apply it intelligently to their own situation.

Not doing so can mean that employees valuable to the future success of a business are overlooked simply because they do not fit an off-the-shelf definition of potential. For example, people with particular expertise in a critical area of the business can be overlooked as they do not fit a view of potential that is geared towards leadership.

Gaining manager buy-in

If the introduction of the Nine Box is to be successful, managers must feel comfortable in using it and feel that it is a valid and useful way to identifying talent.

In practice, our research showed that one-third of operational (i.e. non-HR) managers found the rating process difficult. The most commonly cited difficulties were understanding what ‘potential’ meant, and how to assess it in an ‘objective’ way.

The process was seen as helping to provide a framework for opening up dialogue about the broader potential of people

Doubts about the process were more common amongst more junior managers, principally because they tended to see only one part of the process. More senior managers, involved in calibration meetings with peers, tended to see the overall process as fairer and robust. The process was seen as helping to provide a framework for opening up dialogue about the broader potential of people within departments, and how talent may be nurtured.

Managers were helped by detailed guidance on how to assess potential, and the support of HR Business Partners to clarify their understanding and check their thinking out with when assessing employees.

It may also be worth organisations considering how more junior mangers might be involved in calibration meetings to strengthen commitment to the process.

All in all, the mixed views on the utility of the Nine Box Grid may reflect, in part, the challenges in the process of implementing it, rather than the grid itself.

Author Profile Picture
Daniel Lucy

Head of Research

Read more from Daniel Lucy

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