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Don’t Cling to Outdated HR Practices

The Human Resource function is on the brink of massive change with analytics, data science, AI, technology, globalization, outsourcing, work-from-anywhere, the gig economy, employee experience, cybersecurity considerations and more. At the same time, many organizations are clinging to outdated HR practices that hold the organization back and may even be dangerous.

Among the worst HR practices still being widely used is the 9-box model for talent review.   

A Brief History of the 9-Box Model for Talent Review  

The 9-Box Talent Review approach was developed first by McKinsey for GE in 1970, over 50 years ago. 

This model maps two variables for employees. 

9-box model


The first is employee performance. Ideally, this one is an objective and quantifiable measure. Sadly, though, not all organizations use data to assess performance and allow this to become a subjective assessment.

Looking across the horizontal axis, you see Low, Medium, and High Performance moving from left to right. 

The second variable is potential. Herein lies one of the biggest problems with the 9-box model. Assessing someone else’s potential is purely subjective. We’ll come back to that shortly. 

On this model, potential is represented on the vertical axis with low potential at the bottom and high potential at the top. 

When you put the two variables together and choose high, medium, or low for both of them, you end up with nine categories for employees.  

The purpose of the 9-box model is to offer a visual representation and framework for talent review.

This is also widely used in determining how to allocate budget for employee development…. For example, putting high performance / high potential (AKA hi-po/hi-per) employees into leadership development programs so they’ll be prepared for next-level roles. 

The 9-box model is also used to determine who is promotable and who is fast-tracked. In some organizations, annual raises and bonuses are informed by this process. 

You know what inevitably happens. Haloes and horns get attached to employees in certain boxes:

  • Hi-po/hi-per employees get attention from senior leaders and opportunities that aren’t otherwise available. They are viewed favorably and extra efforts are made to please and retain these employees.  
  • Low-po/low-per employees are largely ignored or micro-managed. In some cases, people categorized here are automatically placed on performance plans or terminated. 


At GE, Jack Welch’s 20/70/10 rule was borne from this model. He mandated that only 20% of employees be categorized in the top boxes, with 70% in the middle boxes, and 10% in the bottom boxes. Many, many other organizations adopted similar approaches for forced rankings.

Incidentally, there has been litigation about stack-ranking systems like this. They were found to be subjective, arbitrary, and allowing for discrimination. That’s why Ford, Microsoft, and Accenture have all dumped ranking systems. 

Of course, all that aside, you still want to achieve these goals: 

  • To have meaningful and useful conversations about talent and succession management
  • To identify and develop emerging leaders
  • To have a sound basis for employee development plans
  • To have a framework that helps you determine the best use of resources for employee development


But using the performance/potential 9-box model is one of the most dangerous of all antiquated HR practices.  

What Makes the 9-Box Model One of the Most Dangerous HR Practices?  

Graphic Showing a File Not Sharing to OtherHi-Po, Low-Po… Hi-Per, Low-Per…… Mainly, when people know about these conversations and this bucketing, they’re just Po-Po – they feel Passed          Over and Pissed Off. 

Employees either feel TAPPED or CAPPED by this process. 

If you can only put 20% of employees in your top boxes, that means you’re providing less to 80% of your workforce. They’re getting less opportunity, less esteem, less support, and less ennoblement. There’s no way around that perception, even if your process is secretive. 

In an era of the Great Resignation and record lows in employee engagement, can you really afford to disenfranchise 80% of your employees? Wouldn’t it make more sense to create more development opportunities, more support, and more ways to create a sense of belonging and a belief that the  organization is willing to invest in every employee? 

If you want more from employees, you’ve got to be sure they are EMOTIONALLY connected to the organization. Subjective processes that take something away from 80% of your employees is a surefire recipe for causing an emotional disconnect!

And what about the vicious circle you may inadvertently be creating? 

People already feel burned out by stressful workloads and short staffing. Then, despite their best efforts, they aren’t seen as having a high level of potential and/or aren’t performing at the top. 

So now they get dinged in your talent review process. Now they’re boxed into a career-limiting category, and it feels utterly unfair due to the circumstances they’ve been thrust into. Now their burnout mounts, and they demonstrate even less emotional connection and exert less discretionary effort. 

But was this really caused by the employee?  Is it fair to blame and penalize employees in this situation? 

There’s another massive issue with the 9-box model. 

Making a judgment about someone’s potential is inherently subjective. We’re talking about something that is latent, not actual, potential is an estimation of what’s possible. How can anyone absolutely determine another’s potential? Most people don’t even know their own potential! What’s more, doesn’t every single person have some measure of potential?

In AMA Enterprise’s study, “Identifying and Developing High-Potential Talent”:

  • The majority of respondents said high-potentials are identified based on performance appraisals (74%) and senior management recommendations (68.5%)
  • Only 41.6% said they weigh innovative and/or unique contributions to the business.
  • Slightly more than one-third said their companies use either or both talent assessments (35.1%) and peer input (34.7%)
  • Only 17.5% reported educational background as a metric.


(Side note: These most-used criteria, bulleted above, don’t include demonstration of company values, willingness to take stretch assignments, leadership qualities or other criteria that ought to count for something.)

In other words, the subjective opinion of one or just a few people matters most (and in more places) in whether or not an employee is designated “high potential.”

In most organizations, there’s a void. No criteria for defining potential is provided. Discussions about potential blatantly demonstrate subjectivity and unconscious biases.

Here’s yet another issue with the 9-box model. 

You can’t talk about people potential without acknowledging the role of unconscious bias. Like it or not, unconscious bias is real, and it influences the 9-box talent review process. 

Assessing others’ potential invites subjectivity. 

By opening the door to subjectivity, you’re also inviting unconscious biases to run rampant. Here’s how just five of them come into play during talent review processes that incorporate 9-box talent review discussions about potential.

Familiarity Bias – the better known an individual is, the more favorable ratings are likely to be. Being visible, outgoing, and connected is NOT a true indication of potential, only of political savvy.

Affinity Bias – the more the individual reminds others of themselves, the more favorable ratings are likely to be. When you see yourself in someone else, you overlook flaws and give grace that is not earned or deserved. Similarly, the less someone is like you, the less likely you are to see positives and potential in them. It’s because you’re not looking through a fair lens, not because it’s lacking. 

We saw earlier that nearly 69% rely heavily on opinions of senior managers when evaluating potential. This quote from SHRM research explains why that’s a problem because of affinity bias: 

“Senior executives, managers, directors, and HR and training and development functions need to be on the same page when it comes to participants’ selection criteria or there’s a risk that senior leaders will tap only those rising stars that mirror themselves,” — Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), Selection Criteria for High-Potentials Vary Widely

Proximity Bias – this is increasingly evident in work-from-home and remote work locations. It’s a subset of familiarity bias. Naturally, you’re more likely to become comfortable with someone you see all day and every day vs. someone you see briefly a few times a week on Zoom. Being near you does not translate into true potential.

Conformity Bias – this shows up as a process flaw. Peer pressure to conform to group opinions can result in some managers inadequately defending the potential of their employees and/or doing a poor job of describing their potential in a way that others can understand it.

Over-Confidence Bias – is also a process flaw. Once bucketed into a certain box, labels stick. It’s because the group assumes they were correct in their initial assessment. Group agreement in any scenario leads to a generalized over-confidence in decisions made together. Subconsciously, we’re thinking “We all agreed, so it must be the right decision.”  That’s why labels, once given, tend to stick and are difficult to change. 

People who participate in this process usually have a vague sense of discomfort about it. At some level, they realize that the decisions made are flimsy and fraught with subjectivity and bias. Maybe that’s why there’s a lot of discomfort about whether or not this process should be transparent.

Which brings us to yet another problem with the 9-box model. 

Some advocate for full transparency in their talent review approach. By sharing information, they believe they’re setting up healthy competition and/or believe they’re motivating people to try harder. 

Others opt for a secretive or partly secretive approach. The lack of transparency is usually intended to protect people who participate. They don’t want the discomfort of having to explain their subjective decisions. 

Both approaches are problematic, mainly because this entire system is flawed and fuels perceptions of favoritism. 

Employees don’t like the idea of any process that ranks them vs. their peers. They feel dehumanized by processes that bucket them without giving them voice or any chance to dispute what’s being said about them. Being talked about, categorized, labeled, and boxed in causes people to feel like cogs in the machine. 

What’s the Alternative to the 9-Box Model?

Yes, there is a better way to achieve your objectives without inadvertently disenfranchising employees, inviting unfairness, and making potential mistakes that are costly to the long-term success of your business. 

Since the potential part of the equation is the most problematic, it needs to be replaced with something more objective, more palatable to employees. and more useful to organizations. 

If you’d like to learn more about this alternative and want to eliminate the dangerous HR practices that flow from the 9-box talent review model, let’s talk. We can help you transform your process for talent review into one that is objective, fair, productive, easy to understand, and eagerly embraced by employees. 

Need to know more before you book a call? Check out the BrightTALK that lays it all out, An Alternative to the 9-Box Model for Talent Review.