What box are you in?

What box are you in? Is it one where you feel inspired, innovative, collaborative and willing to go the extra mile? I rather doubt it and I wonder being contained in a box would generate that kind of feeling and experience – aren't boxes by definition bounded, confining, claustrophobic, and limiting in their horizons?

This week I've noticed a lot of information flowing my way about the 9-box grid. For those of us who don't know what it is, it's a very commonly used way of categorising an employee's performance and potential on two axes on a 3 by 3 matrix giving 9 categories. There are some variations on what each of the nine categories is labelled, (you can see images of some of them here) but basically each has a 'star performer' category in the top right hand box (high performance and high potential), and a 'poor performer' (low performance and low potential) in the bottom left hand box.

In most organisations using this categorization method there is a mid-year and annual re-calibration of the employee pool – usually not by the employees being boxed. Once all the individual names are agreed to be in the 'right' boxes decisions are made on investment (or not) in that employee.

My observation is that this 9-box categorization of people causes a lot of all-round angst, takes up inordinate amounts of time, is based on rather unclear definitions of 'potential' and indeed of 'performance', runs the risk of marginalizing people who are different from the 'norm', and doesn't result in outcomes that increase an organisation's talent pool or even performance and productivity.

Additionally it seems rather odd that we talk about categories and boxes on the one hand, and concepts of the organisations as being boundaryless, sharing, respectful, trusting and encouraging of 'everyone has a voice', on the other hand. Can I hear banging on the walls, and pleas to be let out of the box, any box?

There is a lot of research on the 9-box grid and its organisational value. Some, like researchers at Lancaster University (2011) take a measured view – it's here to stay let's make the best of it. Researchers at Roffey Park, a management institute takes a fairly similar view with a number of caveats about conversations being the thing that made the grid 'work'.

Given employee feedback on the demotivating effects of being 'gridded' there come a good number of suggestions on doing performance reviews a completely different way. See Fast Company's report on this.

And a BBC write-up notes that 'Microsoft, Accenture and Deloitte are some of the companies that are reshaping their annual performance review processes, moving away from rigid rankings, into more fluid feedback.' This pieces goes on to say that 'one of the leaders of the trend away from annual appraisals is General Electric (GE) … [whose] infamous performance reviews once epitomised the detested process that's been dubbed the "rack and stack" or "rank and yank" system, which called for managers to rank employees, then sack the bottom 10% i.e. those in the bottom box.

Are you for a life boxed or unboxed? Which do you think makes for a healthier organisation? Let me know.

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