Managing high vs under performers: Have you got the balance right?

3 March 2020
6 minute

As a people manager or HR professional, there is a constant balance to be struck between time spent on supporting staff who are under-performing, versus time invested in the strong members of your team.

Poor performers: time wasted, or time well spent?

Many managers spend huge amounts of time focusing on poor performers, to the detriment of their star players. Unless they are confident of achieving a turnaround in the under-performer, is this a constructive use of their valuable time?

Managers understand the negative impact of a poor performer, both on the business as a whole and on colleagues. If one member of the team is failing to contribute their fair share, it is not only demotivating to others, but it can destabilise the rest of the team on several levels.

Good performers may feel that their colleague is being treated too leniently, whilst they are having to fill in the gaps in productivity. This may lead to a lack of trust and ultimately a desire to move to a different job.

A study on the correlation between job performance and employee engagement found that in 42% of organisations, employees who contributed the least tended to be more engaged than high performers. Failing to deal with a poor performer may mean that you will also lose some of your best people.

What’s the problem?

There are many reasons why a person may be underperforming:

  • They may lack the correct skills to carry out the job
  • They may be well skilled, but badly matched to the job
  • There may be a lack of motivation, a ‘can do, won’t do’ problem
  • There may be an issue with the immediate manager.

A manager who is open and honest, who informs and communicates, who recognises achievement and values their staff is more likely to be rewarded with engaged and motivated staff.

Finding a solution

The key to finding the solution is to understand the cause of the problem. There may be an obvious difficulty, such as a disability or illness acquired since the person was first employed. Assuming there is nothing going on in their home life (bereavement, relationship difficulties, financial difficulties, etc.) and the cause is invisible, you need the right tools to discover the root of the problem.

One such set of tools is psychometric assessments. Whilst they are most well-known for use in recruitment, many may not appreciate that psychometric assessments can be valuable throughout the employee lifecycle.

In a 1-1 or annual review, a person may open up to you and tell you why they are struggling, but a psychometric assessment will tell you what’s really going on. It will help you to pinpoint potential issues, create an environment for open and honest dialogue, and provide some insight into how you can manage the person into a more productive mindset.

This will enable you to quickly put an action plan together, so that you can become more effective in your management of their low performance. This may involve targeted training, moving them to a new more suitable position, or helping them to understand and address the causes of their poor performance.

So, how can you, as a people manager or HR professional, identify the problem and then constructively address it?

  • If the skills and competencies to do the job are lacking, completing a 360-feedback review will pinpoint the gaps and help the individual to understand the impact they have on the rest of the team/organisation.
  • A lack of the behavioural strengths to do the job effectively can be addressed by behavioural (DISC) profiling, which will help you compare the person against the ideal job requirements and see what is missing. The same assessment will help you to identify pressures and frustrations, as well as highlighting any problems of a personal or emotional nature.
  • Using emotional intelligence and behavioural profiling will identify if interpersonal skills are insufficient.
  • There may be a problem with cognitive ability; either the person does not possess enough cognitive ability for the job or, conversely, far more than the job requires. Measuring a person’s mental horsepower will help put into context a person’s trainability – how quickly it will take them to get to grips with a new role, skill or process.
  • A poor fit or conflict with the team may also cause poor performance. Completing a team audit will help identify issues of this nature and provide recommendations of how to improve team dynamics.

Identifying the root cause of under-performance will enable you to find an effective solution, such as targeted training. Alternatively, you may decide to move the employee to a more suitable position within your organisation; one that matches their skillset better and plays to their strengths. With a remedy in place, you will have more time to devote to your top performers.

Managing your stars

A manager should never assume that just because an employee is high performing, they are also engaged and committed to their role/the organisation. Neither should it be assumed that money is the only answer to keeping a top performer motivated. They need your time just as much as the under performer, since being left too much to their own devices can lead to a different set of problems.

Just as with an under performer, the team may suffer from the behaviour of the top performer if they do not regard themselves as part of the team: a team can contain a number of stars, but this only works if they interact with their colleagues. A star performer needs good interpersonal skills, plus a keen awareness of how their behaviour and actions impact others. They may be too focused on results to pay attention to their behaviour and since they are excellent at delivering, you may feel that they do not need your time or direction.

Many stars are ‘home grown’ and with more than half of employers increasing their investment in leadership and talent development, time is needed to identify and develop the right rising stars.

The right tools for the job

Gaining a better understanding of your most successful employees will enable you to ensure that they are working to the best of their ability. Understanding the behavioural and emotional preferences of these people provides an objective baseline to help a manager understand them, as well as helping the employees understand themselves.

The Personal Profile Analysis (PPA) and Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue) provide this information, which allows managers to effectively develop these individuals. The PPA enables you to gain a deeper understanding of how your employees behave, how they like to communicate, their strengths, limitations and their motivators. The TEIQue is designed to tell you how well your people understand and manage their emotions, how well they interpret and deal with the emotions of others and how they use this knowledge to manage relationships..

Using the Thomas 360 feedback tool can help an employee identify their strengths and areas for development, as suggested by their colleagues and customers. This gives them insight into how their performance and behaviour is perceived by others.

Identifying the potential in people is key to ensuring we are selecting the right talent for the right roles and providing them with the most suitable development plans. The High Potential Trait Indicator (HPTI) explores a person’s personality traits and provides an insight into how well-suited they may be for a given job role or position. By understanding someone’s personality and how this interacts with a particular function or role, you can work with them to develop their strengths and areas for improvement, so that they can reach their full potential in work.

With the increased understanding that Thomas assessments provide, you can implement effective development plans for your top talent, keeping them motivated and high performing.


Job Performance Not A Predictor Of Employee Engagement Whitepaper, Leadership IQ, 2013

Resourcing and talent planning survey report, CIPD, 2017


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