When Performance Meets Potential: The Nine Box Matrix

October 4, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

As I look across my—or any—organization, there are so many talented, hard-working individuals. One of our jobs is to understand what talents each person brings to the team, and how to engage and interact with them appropriately.

I see how easy it is to treat everyone the same. Yet each person is unique and requires an understanding of what they value and how they like to receive praise, recognition, and opportunity.

The Nine-Box Matrix is one of many tools that can help leaders categorize their employees based on assessing performance against potential. It’s also important to assess yourself and know where you stand on this scale.     

Defining Performance and Potential

Assessing Performance

Low Performance:  The employee is not meeting the expectations of their current assignment. If asked to create 100 widgets per day, they’ll create less for a variety of reasons.

Moderate Performance: The employee is meeting the expectations of exactly what they’re asked to do. They will generate 100 widgets per day, no more and no less.

High Performance. The employee is exceeding the expectations of their assigned roles and tasks. They consistently produce over 100 widgets a day and do so without complaint.

Assessing Potential

Low Potential: The employee is not expected to improve and has reached their maximum capacity based on either ability or desire. They will not be promoted nor expect to be. This is not necessarily bad.

Moderate Potential: The employee has the capability to increase knowledge and expertise in their current role. They are somewhat interested in other opportunities and have the capacity for more.

High Potential: The employee is already thinking well beyond their current role, finding additional assignments, and ready for increased responsibilities today. They’re hungry to improve and taking initiative on their own to go above and beyond.

Putting It Together

The Nine-Box Matrix provides a deeper assessment into your employees–and yourself as well. The goal is always to move up and to the right. Let’s break it down:

1. Deadwood. These employees are bringing your organization down. They’re often called “bad hires.” They fail to complete assignments, have no interest in improving, and take up most of your time. These people you must quickly move to the right or performance manage out of your team. They cannot stay at their current performance levels, or the rest of your team will notice and resent leadership for it.

2. Solid Professional. This person will do what you ask them. They are not seeking promotion and knock out their 100 widgets each day and go home. They may or not be happy, but they are making the mission happen. These employees need your thanks. You must tell them they’re a vital part of your organization, and you’re proud of them. This is most likely a good chunk of your team.

3. Workhorse. They come into work every day and knock it out of the park. They’re working for personal pride and no additional responsibility. They’re making more widgets than you ask and are looking for something: paycheck, praise, etc. This employee needs thanks as well, but also additional recognition for going above and beyond. Find out how they like to be recognized individually and celebrate with them accordingly.

4. Inconsistent Player. This person is not living up to their potential. Sometimes called the “Up or Out Dilemma,” leaders must try to figure out why they are not meeting goals, because they can. Sometimes it’s professional and sometimes personal. Your challenge is to help them overcome their obstacles and increase their performance on the scale. If not, they may become deadwood. Usually this is a motivational problem.

5. Core Player. Here’s where it gets fun! This group is meeting objectives and interested in doing more. They have opportunity for growth in your organization but need a little prodding. Thank this group, but also challenge them because they often won’t challenge themselves. It’s up to you to offer education, projects, opportunities, and ways to interest them. Get them more involved!

6. High Performer. These people are crushing their jobs and can do even more. Thank them, recognize them in ways they value, and challenge them with increasing opportunities for growth. The leader must understand what motivates them and match the employee’s talents with their passions to find opportunity for them to excel. Place them in their “Sweet Spot.”  

7. Rough Diamond. This person is typically new to their position. While performance is low, it’s because they’re learning the job. The Rough Diamond most recently was a core player or high performer and is now being challenged in a new position. This is a good thing. Thank and recognize them for learning, allow them to fail fast, encourage their journey, coach and mentor them, and watch them move to the right on the scale.

8. High Potential. Sometimes called “growth employees,” this group is the future of your organization. They are also categorized as learners and are growing into their role. Continue to thank, appropriately recognize, challenge, coach, mentor, and allow innovation and subsequent fast failures—let them learn. Know when you need to intervene (rarely) and when you can watch them excel. Interact regularly to ensure they’re happy in their role.

9. Star. Let em’ run! This group needs the positive interactions: thanks, individual recognition, and mentoring. But more than that, they need to be untethered. Do not overly manage this group. Leverage their innovation, creativity, and new ideas to propel the organization forward. Most of all, find them promotion opportunities and let them lead!

Know Who Works for You

So often, we treat everyone the same. You must know how your employees are performing, what future potential they have, what motivates them, how they desire recognition, and the way to treat them based on their personal desires.

While we all want a team of stars, everyone is at a different place in life, and that’s okay. Many people are content being solid professionals; thank them for that. Inconsistent players can be a great asset to your organization. Rough diamonds are learners. Each category is unique.

At the human level, we’re charged to understand who works for us and help individuals meet personal and professional goals. Move them up and to the right, and head that way yourself too.

Know your people, treat them accordingly, and lead well!

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