Why Performance Improvement Plans Don’t Work!

Why Performance Improvement Plans Don’t Work!

800 371 Kamal Karanth

We know there are different metrics in every organisation, attrition rates, number of people on notice period, % people on bench, number of people above 100% target achievement. You think there would be a measurement of the number of people on Performance Improvement Plan?

Ever been subjected to PIP or Performance Improvement Plans? I know it is difficult to admit in public, 🙂 but I am sure you can nod in agreement as there is no harm being honest to self while reading in your own little space. I can assure you that in a long career we would face performance dips and you would be subject to PIPs of different kinds, in some organisations they call it PIP and deal with your performance in a structured way or in many they would just subject you to different kinds of pressure situations for you to feel that you are under observation for improving your performance. Whether it is called PIP or not, you would realise over a period of time that even without a PIP tag you are under fire for performance. I read somewhere that a PIP is a great opportunity for struggling employees to succeed while still holding them accountable for past bad performance, nice English huh? I still think, PIP as a structure may have been constructed with great intention but it seldom delivers the desired success of turning around employee performance. Why do you think PIPs don’t work? Next 3 minutes is my exploration of Performance Improvement Plan.

It was time for my quarterly review. Generally our reviews consisted of discussions around sales trends, a few customers and some challenging team members. I would make some notes at the end of the discussion and that was only one of us. My boss didn’t even have a note book open. For the first time I saw him ready with a notebook and the organisation review form which had been untouched for 5 quarters. I sensed something wrong. There was no welcome smile, ice breaking of “Khana kaya? (Had lunch?), no small talk around movies. We got into the review straight away. I thought he must have had a bad day, but my sixth sense was activated. It’s not that I had not had bad quarters before. The reviews then had a touch of support, questions around effort, and directions around focus areas in an atmosphere of warmth. This one was different, the tone was less assuring, and it looked like a probe with a volley of questions. The questions were about intent and I felt the lack of trust. Unlike the norm, he was taking copious notes of his own.

At this time I became fully aware that this review was heading towards a disastrous close. I ended up being defensive and pushed back at every suggestion that came my way. Towards the end of review he had duly filled my review form and asked me to sign off on it. I felt like I was signing a big default guarantee plan. So now you know I have been through PIPs before 🙂 Just that they weren’t called PIPs then. After that day it felt like I was on parole. I now was subject to weekly reviews instead of monthly reviews, and my super boss also started attending my monthly reviews. The trust factor had vanished. I started focusing on getting reports in time, my documentation, and meeting deadlines became more accurate. The adrenalin stopped pumping, I stopped going to my boss for support and single mindedly focused on sales. Funny things happen in sales, you are just one big order away from becoming a superstar again. But our relationship was never the same again. Though he stopped taking notes further, I started to fill up the review form and take his signature 🙂 Maybe he was just doing his job in executing the PIP obviously the outcome of a training program he had attended which must have taught him this cold process. However, it had the opposite effect on me and resulted in loss of sleep, appetite and personal recreation time. I feared for my job rather than trying to doing things the right way. I eventually quit as I wasn’t mature to understand and appreciate the process of PIP.

So why not implement a PIP? After all it provides a structured way to aid struggling employees to get back to acceptable performing levels. My argument is in today’s world a PIP doesn’t work because:

  • It is administered by managers who are not proficient in administering it (sorry if it sounds like a jab/injection)
  • Most of us do it to escape from our own lack of accountability to make the person successful
  • We don’t want to be caught out by HR for not following the due process (our own lack of conviction that it would work)

One of my manager’s once told me he would rather tell the person to look for another job than do this painful paper work. Yes, it is simpler to tell the person in front of you that you have lost confidence in the person’s abilities to perform (as subjective as it might sound), but then we also need to pay attention to the legalities that might strike if the lack of performance is not documented.

I once asked my team a weird question. “How many people are on PIP in our organization?” There was near silence and when pushed people started to give vague answers, and there wasn’t an accurate figure people could come up with confidently. I knew it was a difficult question to answer as much as a difficult question to ask for myself. When a single digit number emerged after some pushing and prodding, I realised that it was never measured. The number of PIPs would be the last thing one wants to measure in any organization. But not measuring could also mean you are ignoring the obvious. I could relate to the silence in the room as my team surely wanted to give people a better atmosphere to succeed than the torture of a PIP. My reaction to any PIP is like a notice to find another job rather than improving current performance. With all its good intentions a PIP still denotes lack of trust in a person’s ability to perform the role!

PIP is like holding a real gun without aiming it at you. The bullets around imply the intent.

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