Benchmarking And Addressing Underperformers

  By Michael Neidle  |    Tuesday May 28, 2024

Category: Columns, Expert Advice


In business, the pace of change is incessant, rising ever faster with fierce competition. This is what the free market and capitalism are all about. This requires that companies need to be on their toes at all times, less they either lose their competitive edge or are left behind. Therefore, the performance of every employee becomes crucial to the overall success of an organization. An underperforming employee, especially one within a group holding similar responsibilities, can significantly impede not just the team’s progress but potentially broader organizational goals. In some cases, the phrase “government mentality” becomes the norm without a strong manager, the least productive employee becomes the standard of performance, and the entire group egresses to the mean and infects the entire unit. Tackling this issue requires a sting but nuanced management approach, emphasizing both quantitative benchmarks and the cultivation of interpersonal skills within the group. This article explores a comprehensive two-step strategy designed to uplift an underperforming employee, grounded in transparency, measurable goals, and personal development.

Step 1: Benchmarking Performance through KPIs and Metrics

The first phase in addressing underperformance is to conduct an objective assessment of the employee’s output relative to their peers within the same group or industry. This approach presupposes access to relevant external data on current performance and trends, more specifically, Key Performance Indicators or KPIs and other critical metrics that define how most successful people achieve success by making their numbers, or benchmarking. Without outside metrics, the group can develop its own standards by tracking a) the performance of the top quartile of the top performer data over time as well as b) the top quartile of the group’s performance over time and identifying the upper quartile of their group’s results. The higher the two numbers are then set as the standard, the standard of performance, or the “plan.” This is as, we have demonstrated that we have achieved these results albeit ¼ of the time, so it is achievable. so that becomes our standard. Obviously, we must have the data checked for accuracy to avoid setting unrealistic goals Or, (GIGO garbage in, garbage out.

> The top performer should be showcased and publicly recognized. Their achievement should also receive commensurate rewards with a reward, be it financial or some other way. Others should be motivated to reach that level for a healthy competitive environment.   

> This comparative analysis should highlight areas of deficiency and excellence, providing a clear picture of where improvements are needed. The rationale is not to foster a sense of inadequacy but to set a tangible benchmark for excellence.

> By making metrics the measure of success, we turn metrics from a chore into currency. However, there needs to be checks and balances on their data to ensure its accuracy. 

Developing a Customized Improvement Plan: With the disparities between top performers and others laid bare, the next step involves crafting a personalized development plan aimed at bridging the gap. This plan should outline specific, measurable objectives, timelines for achievement, and the resources available for support. Such a plan might include targeted training sessions, mentorship arrangements, and regular review meetings to assess progress. This is in the form of a variance to the plan and trends analysis so one can not only see where they are now but how they are trending, up or down in the right direction. 

As seen below, the individual was below the group and trending down at time T1. After working with that person to improve their metrics this was arrested that trend at T2. This person then climbed up upward, intersecting the group that stagnated at T3,

Step 2: Enhancing Interpersonal Skills and Team Integration

While hard skills and measurable outputs are crucial, the importance of interpersonal skills cannot be overstated. An employee’s ability to communicate effectively, understand their role within the team, and be perceived as a trusted member is equally vital.

Fostering Effective Communication: Coaching on communication strategies can help employees express ideas more clearly, listen actively to colleagues, and respond constructively to feedback. Emphasis should be on verbal and non-verbal communication skills, ensuring they can navigate the nuances of workplace interactions.

Understanding Role and Group Dynamics: Guiding the employee to a deeper understanding of their role within the team and how it contributes to the group’s and organization’s objectives is crucial. This awareness fosters a sense of purpose and belonging, key drivers of engagement and performance.

Building Trust and Reliability: Trust within a team is foundational. Initiatives to bolster the employee’s reliability and integrity can significantly impact their integration and the perception of their performance. This involves consistent delivery of commitments, openness to feedback, and active participation in team activities.

Examples from the Business World

Example 1: A Tech Company’s Turnaround Story
A notable tech firm identified a group of underperforming software developers. By implementing a benchmarking system that highlighted their performance against the top quartile within the industry, coupled with personalized coaching and skill development sessions focusing on agile methodologies and effective team communication, the company saw a significant turnaround. Over six months, the group not only met their KPIs but also reported higher job satisfaction and team cohesion.

Example 2: Retail Chain Success through Personal Development
A national retail chain struggling with customer service scores targeted underperforming employees for a program that blended performance benchmarking with intensive soft skills training, including empathy, conflict resolution, and teamwork. The initiative led to a marked improvement in customer satisfaction and a decrease in employee turnover, showcasing the dual importance of hard and soft skills.

Example 3: Financial Services Firm Enhances Analyst Performance
A financial services firm used a detailed analysis of performance metrics to identify underperforming analysts. Through tracking their PIs direct mentorship, participation in industry conferences, and a series of workshops on analytical techniques and presentation skills, these analysts were able to improve their performance significantly, contributing to an overall increase in the firm’s market insights quality.


Addressing underperformance is a complex challenge that requires a balanced approach, focusing on both the tangible aspects of job performance and the intangible elements of team dynamics and interpersonal skills. By benchmarking against industry or group standards and fostering an environment of growth and development, leaders can not only improve individual performance but also enhance team functionality and organizational success. The examples provided underscore the efficacy of this dual approach, offering valuable lessons for businesses across sectors. Through persistent effort, transparent communication, and targeted development initiatives, underperforming employees can transform into key contributors, driving forward the collective achievements of their teams and organizations.

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