When my oldest son got cut from the 7th grade basketball team, it was devastating. He was a strong player and he simply felt that he was cut for reasons that had nothing to do with his performance. He could have simply given up the sport, but we spent some time coaching him through what went wrong. Truth is, some of what he figured out had been shared with him before, but this time, he chose to take it on board and work to improve. He chose growth and continued playing basketball and is a college basketball coach today.
I always think of that story when I am working with people placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Most people placed on a PIP by their manager or Human Resources team have had, in theory, numerous conversations about areas for growth. But the formality of a PIP is what might ultimately startle the individual into taking the feedback seriously – perhaps for the first time.
Sadly, many people assume that being placed on a PIP is the employer’s unspoken way of saying “you are a few months from being fired…no matter what you do.” They view the PIP as mere documentation to support the employer’s decision. However, when the PIP comes with an offer of coaching (a clear investment in the individual), the individual can often see a path to growth.
It’s not unusual for someone placed on a PIP to feel hurt and angry and be in a bit of denial. Initially, they may be defensive and convince themselves that there’s nothing they can do to improve their situation but, in my experience, once a person has the chance to vent to a neutral third party, they become more ready to consider the possibility that the outlined areas of improvement are worthy of their attention.
When coaching people who are feeling a PIP as a threat, the following 6 steps can help bring them to a growth mindset that leads to success:
- Acknowledge: Being placed on a PIP feels terrible. In the best of cases, it feels like a huge rejection of one’s skills and talents. And, when the issues are of a behavioral or leadership nature, it feels like a condemnation of the individual as a person. Listening to how it feels and acknowledging the associated pain is an important first step in neutralizing the fear, hurt, anxiety and anger that is so often at the forefront of what the individual is experiencing.
- Get Real: It’s the rare employee who, when considering the PIP objectively, can’t find any kernel of truth in the assessment. By asking the employee to consider what specifics – even if small – that they agree with, you can begin to help them identify areas for growth.
- Put the Shoe on the Other Foot: It’s always interesting to ask someone in this circumstance to imagine why there is concern about specific areas of their performance. By asking a few open-ended questions, you can often lead them toward a more objective view of themselves. Those questions might include:
- Why do you think your manager/colleagues raised this issue?
- Can you share an example of where you could have handled a situation differently resulting in a better outcome?
- How would it feel to you if someone turned in work/behaved in such a manner?
- Since you believe you delivered the work/behaved in a manner that was appropriate, why might they have a different perspective?
- Often, the answer here is “I don’t know” and that’s when silence can help. Or some might personalize the response to “they just don’t like me” or “they are biased” or “they are jealous”. When that occurs, a good follow up question is, are you ready to consider other possibilities?
- Separate True Barriers to Growth from the “Buts”: There may be actual barriers to an individual achieving the goals laid out in a PIP. Perhaps they don’t have the training needed to accomplish a specific task. However, the individual may also mask their fear or resistance to change with the “buts” – I would do that but (insert fake barrier). Coaching can support the individual in identify how to hurdle the true barriers and simply walk around the “buts….”
- Set the goal and Steps to Reach It: Coaching is goal oriented. In a scenario where a person is placed on a PIP, the goal can take many forms. Working with a coach, the employee can identify how they want to address the specific issues in the PIP, strike a new relationship with their manager and team or, even chart a new path forward. Outlining goals and working with a coach to own one’s accountability is an actionable step toward enabling a growth mindset.
- Believe: Coaching can help an employee improve their performance or help strong performers become even more effective. Coaching enables the employee to feel considered and supported while giving them a safe space to take accountability for how they address the PIP.