The Truth About ‘Performance Improvement Plans’

Let’s be honest — when your boss gets mad at  you and puts you on a Performance Improvement Plan, the last thing on his or her mind is improving your performance.

If your boss really wanted to improve your performance, he or she would sit down with you and talk to you like a friend or a coach, reports Forbes. They’d say “Something is getting in your way on the job. Let’s figure it out! You are awesome and I know we can work through this.”

A manager only puts you on a Performance Improvement Plan when they want to get rid of you. Instead of a Performance Improvement Plan, it should be called This is the First Step Toward Firing You Plan, because that is what’s happening.

They already know they want to get rid of you. I was an SVP of HR for eons and I know that when a manager comes into HR and says “I need to put someone on probation” or “I need to put someone on a Performance Improvement Plan” it means that the manager doesn’t  like the employee and wants him or her out of the building.

Management in many organizations is fear-based. Managers can get spooked easily. All you have to do is question their authority or have a better idea than they had and a fearful manager can decide you are the antichrist.

Then they might run to HR and begin the process of moving you out of the door. The first step is to put you on a Performance Improvement Plan. In reality, this step has nothing to do with performance improvement.

It has everything to do with power and control and letting an uppity employee know who’s boss.

Performance Improvement Plans send the message “I control your livelihood, so don’t cross me.”

If you want to help someone get better at something, do you write them up and put them on probation?

Of course not! In the business world, we love to talk about “root causes.” We love to dig down and figure out what’s underneath whatever problem we are trying to solve.

Maybe it’s a workflow problem or an inventory problem or a problem with our sales training. We want to find out what the root cause of the problem is — except when we are talking about employees and their performance.

When a manager is unhappy with an employee, then our aspirations to identify root causes magically disappear. We don’t care about root causes when an employee does something the manager doesn’t want him or her to do, because if we dug too deep or told too much truth about why the employee ran into the snag that he or she did, we might find a root cause that nobody wants to hear about.

We might find that the company leaders have no vision, or that the managers are lying to their superiors about what the team can actually produce in a day. We might find that a certain manager has no business leading a team and always misses his targets, so he has to find scapegoats to blame it on — and you might be the scapegoat of the month!

Organizations that lead with a human voice don’t put people on Performance Improvement Plans. I’ve been an HR leader since 1984 and I’ve never put anyone on a PIP. I only work with adults, not children — so why would I need to write someone up and treat them like a wayward child or a criminal?

Performance Improvement Plans are part of the crusty, outdated management system I lovingly (and by “lovingly” I mean “with hatred burning in my heart”) call Godzilla. Godzilla still rules in many organizations, but it will not survive much  longer because the Knowledge Economy we live in now will not allow Godzilla to live much longer. Its day is done.

We are all waking up in the Human Workplace and realizing that only bullies and weak managers lead through fear. Grown-ups and strong managers lead through trust.

What do you do if you’re a manager and you just can’t through to someone on your team — your teammate Sally, let’s say — such that Sally keeps making mistakes, day after day?

Here’s what you’ll do in that case. You’ll say “Here’s what I know. I know that I hired Sally because she is smart and capable, so if something is going wrong at Sally’s desk, it’s my problem, not hers.

“After all, I’m the manager. My job would be easy if all I did was blame the employees when things went wrong, but if I did that, I wouldn’t be a leader — I’d be a whiny weenie with no spine and no integrity!

“Instead of blaming Sally and putting her on an idiotic Performance Improvement Plan to cover up for my lack of leadership skills, I’ll dig in and spend more time with Sally. I’ll start from the beginning and make sure she completely understands her job.

“I’ll make sure that I am not impeding Sally in some way, possibly without knowing it. I’ll make sure that our systems make sense, because I know that corporate processes can easily become tangled and ineffective and that may have happened here.

“I won’t stoop to pretending that Sally just randomly decided to act out and stop doing her work one day, because I am a rational person and no rational person would reach that conclusion. Above all, I’ll  be honest with Sally. I won’t try to make her take the blame for my difficulty dismantling whatever roadblock is in Sally’s way.

“I took the manager job when they offered it to me, so that means I’m responsible. I’m taking responsibility for Sally’s success — of course! What kind of manager would do anything less?”

What kind of manager, indeed? Not you — you’re a strong manager with a voice and a heart and a commitment to the people on your team. You’re not about to throw Sally or anyone else under the bus just to preserve the fiction that you are above reproach but that somehow, against all reason,  you still have employees on your team that can’t get their work done.

You’re smarter than that, thank goodness! You’ve written your last Performance Improvement Plan. You’re leaving Godzilla behind and stepping into your power!

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