It starts with an uneasy feeling: You’re left out of meetings you used to attend. The boss stops offering suggestions. Once-friendly colleagues turn cool.

How can you be the last one to know you’re failing or flailing at work?

People often rationalize their failings by benchmarking their job performance against mediocre peers, rather than stars, saying, “I’m not that bad. Look at Joey over there,” says Brian Binke, president of the Birmingham Group, a Berkley, Mich., affiliate of the Sanford Rose Associates executive-search network.

And peers are often the first to see the writing on the wall, he says. Like many managers, Mr. Binke has hesitated to fire poor performers in the past, worrying that it would upset other employees. But when he finally pulls the trigger, Mr. Binke says, the reaction from peers is often, “What took you so long?”

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