Navigating Performance Improvement Plans with Confidence

Amy didn’t see it coming – first a warning in the fall from her boss about communication issues, then this winter, a full-fledged Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) was pushed across the table to her. While the plan offered specifics for improvement, it also carried the threat that, “Failure to meet or exceed these expectations may result in action up to and including termination.”

Gulp. When this 15-year veteran employee was asked how she was feeling, she evinced self-doubt, feelings of defeat, and concerns about the security of her job. There was the real fear that the PIP, however humane-appearing, was just a means to create a paper trail in order to fire her. She also felt frustrated she could not tell her side of the story. In fact, as a Program Manager on a large team, it was such a blow to Amy that she started to imagine getting another job where her “only input is on a computer.”

Should Amy give up and get out? As the career counselor she consulted, I wasn’t so sure the seemingly easy way—give up and quit–was the best way. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a plan to better understand and improve your performance and retain your job? Sometimes leaving just transports the same problem to another address.

Generally, an employee has 60-90 days to work a PIP. Unless a job situation has worse-than-normal politics or is otherwise toxic (in which case you should probably go in peace), I tend to advise clients to do everything possible to accomplish the PIP. It doesn’t mean you agree with it or intend to stay, but once accomplished, then there’s some breathing room to explore the status quo, possible re-assignment, or a new employer altogether. After all, there’s little question that job candidates are considered more attractive when currently employed.

Steps to get focused and over the PIP hurdle:

  • Realize the blow to your ego—and get over it! No question getting put on a PIP can be a real blow to the ego and feed the tendency to feel like a victim of circumstance.  In fact, your wounded ego may be blaming your manager and telling you to quit in order to save face. After a short period of inner torture, pull yourself together and stop the inner story telling.  Yes, you are going to feel wounded and more vulnerable for a while, but blame and defensiveness will do nothing to boost your commitment and performance to the needed levels.
  • Understand the PIP through and through. If you want to get beyond a performance improvement plan, you must really get what the concerns are and how you are expected to change. Sometimes the plans are not adequately specific nor clear on how you will be judged, or what the deadline for improvements is. Seek clarity, and consider taking initiative to better define the behavioral expectations, per #3 below. As much as you may be in shock, don’t sign off on the PIP until you are sure you understand the expectations and consequences.
  • Develop and respond with a strategy. Your boss may give you some written boilerplate about company standards and how to meet them, but it is rarely adequate as a guide for behavior change. I suggested Amy show initiative and engagement by proposing a detailed table that incorporated the company standards and added specific behavioral steps to accomplish them. Here are the headings:
Goal/perform standards, e.g., “Communications” Desired Behavior (in need of improvement) Behavioral Steps I will take/skill development Evidence expectation met (measurements?) Spvr sign-off

As an example under “Behavioral Steps,” since bosses want demonstrable improvement, I also advise and teach clients to adopt a small new behavior each week such as reflective listening.

  • Communicate with your manager. Typically, an employee on a PIP will meet with their manager at least once a week to discuss progress on the plan, and it’s best to meet at the manager’s convenience. The table above adds helpful structure to these meetings by detailing the desired behavior, specific behavioral steps, as well as the evidence of expectations met for which the supervisor should sign. In these meetings you need to “manage up” like never before and also demonstrate new behaviors (e.g. reflective listening) that should help ease the manager’s frustration.
  • Don’t get defensive. The natural tendency is to want to tell your side of the story. The corrective action, however, often means things have progressed too far for trying to share responsibility or blame. In fact, the manager wants to see just the opposite ̶ to see the employee take responsibility for any errors or mis-communications. For instance, Amy was confronted with feedback that she was communicating “in an aggressive manner,” to which she reacted with private skepticism. As her counselor, I questioned whether Amy’s desire to take as little of other’s time as possible when making a request might have caused her to speak too rapidly and be perceived as aggressive. This is a communication habit Amy was able to own without getting defensive and un-learn.
  • Take stock. As you progress through the PIP, take note of the situation. Is your manager engaged? Are you committed to change or does the PIP feel like a goal too far with too little meaning? While I urge clients to stay the course, these indicators may mean it is time to start searching for opportunities in different departments or with a new employer.

Conclusion. Receiving a Performance Improvement Plan may plunge you into crisis thinking about an imminent end of your employment. While not without risk, if you see a PIP as a chance to get good feedback, improve your skills and abilities as well as deepen communication with your manager, then it can be a win-win for you personally as well. For Amy, receiving corrective feedback and processing her feelings was painful in the short term, but after she recovered and focused on meeting the PIP goals, she was able to successfully retain her long-term employment.


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