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Daniel Lucy

Roffey Park Institute

Head of Research

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The Nine Box Grid: What’s the impact on employee engagement?


Whilst the Nine Box Grid has become a popular way of trying to identifying an organisation’s future talent, the impact of this on employee engagement is a relatively underexplored question. 

When managers are asked to rate their staff on the Nine Box Grid, the majority tend to place their staff in the top right of the grid; the 'future talent' boxes. Managers, it would appear, are aware of the potentially demotivating impact of being placed outside these boxes.

Roffey Park research asked the question ‘The Nine Box Grid: Is it all about being in the top right?’ The answer was a qualified ‘yes’.

Potentially demotivating

From an organisational perspective, many were attempting to identify individuals in this top right quadrant of the grid, and were thinking about the planning of development opportunities for this group. Less thought was being given to those outside of the top quadrant of boxes.

For individual employees, one-fifth rated as high potential were nonetheless demotivated by the experience, as they were not placed in the top right box of the grid (the high potential, high performance box). This rightly or wrongly, carried an implicit message that their career options in the organisation were limited.

Employees rated as high potential (but not performance) felt demotivated as the organisational focus was on employees rated as high performance and potential, and it did not appear that enough was being done to develop and support their own career development.

One third did not feel that anything changed as a result of the process

Even where employees were placed in the top right hand box of the grid (high performance, high potential), this did not necessarily translate to higher levels of engagement. One third did not feel that anything changed as a result of the process, whilst one in ten felt less positive about their future career in the organisation.

For both, the issue appeared to be the lack of follow-on development opportunities. In essence, their organisation had raised their expectations without thinking through in advance how to meet these raised expectations.

What's the deal?

As an example of the impact of this, one manager we spoke with said; "A sense of unfulfilled expectation was left hanging after the exercise. I felt ‘so what’, and the high potentials I know often had a high expectation of development or promotion that simply wasn’t managed or fulfilled".

Our research suggested that the motivational benefits were short-lived

One lesson for HR appears to be: be clear about why you are using the grid, be clear in advance about ‘the deal’ for each box on the Grid, and quickly follow up on commitments.

Whilst the majority of employees placed in the top right hand box of the grid did have a positive view of the process, our research suggested that the motivational benefits were short-lived, with the rating viewed as a pleasant validation of the employee’s own opinion.

That said, the rating and a conversation alongside it were still valued as an opportunity to confirm that the employee was on the right track, and helpful in that it provided an opportunity to hear things about themselves in a different way to conversations focussed on business results.

Addressing low performance

Unsurprisingly, those rated in the five boxes with low performance or potential were demotivated by the experience, and could even find the process confusing and pointless. There may be a case for organisations’ reviewing the purpose of asking managers to hold ‘Nine Box rating’ conversations with this group.

For those in the low performance box, one could argue that these employees should be being dealt with through the performance management process rather than a ‘talent conversation’.

There could still be value in having conversations with some employees rated as having low potential, particularly if they are seen by their manager as having potential but do not fare well against the given criteria (for example, due to lack of willingness to relocate). In such cases, the conversation may open up possibilities that have previously not been considered.

Should recent role changes be exempt?

The Nine Box Grid rating process could also be demoralising for employees that had moved roles or been promoted.

Following the change in role, they had sometimes moved from being considered a ‘star performer’ to being considered as ‘under-performing’. This made the employees concerned question why they were taking on such challenging roles, if they were not appreciated for doing so.

One employee, 'felt scarred (by the rating) and still reeling from it six months on'

As an example of the impact this can have on employee motivation, one employee we spoke with said: "I was rated as under-performing on the grid. I had a new job, a difficult supplier who was not performing, and new expectations about what my role was about. I felt scarred (by the rating) and am still reeling from it six months on".

To avoid this issue, HR should consider exempting individual employees from being rated on the grid when they have just moved roles, particularly roles that require additional skills or a higher level of working. 

Learnings for HR

Be mindful of the possible impacts on employee engagement and motivation of using the Nine Box Grid.

You also need to be clear in advance what development opportunities are available for employees placed in each box and to make sure those opportunities are available shortly following the rating process.

HR also needs to equip managers with the ability to hold effective and motivating development conversations with staff, irrespective of their rating.

Whilst being rated outside the top box can be disappointing for some staff, a skilful manager can still hold a valuable conversation with their staff to work out what they want, and what they might need to improve or develop to achieve that.

Author Profile Picture
Daniel Lucy

Head of Research

Read more from Daniel Lucy

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