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Stop Doing PIPs (Performance Improvement Plans) and Do This Instead!
03/04/2019 John Grubbs
tribe migration

PIPs are the equivalent of dysfunctional annual performance reviews.  They are another antiquated tool for mishandling humans on our teams.  Before you get too defensive, please stay with me.  This is not hyperbole to get your attention.  I will provide you with a logical case for rethinking this tool’s efficacy.  Whether you agree with me or not, you will enjoy the discussion.  Let this information soak a while.  We just might identify a blind spot.

I have spent four years researching our tribal tendencies to finish my latest book.  There are deeply ingrained needs that surface when we interact in groups.  We have predictable actions and reactions.  Scientists call it stimulus and response.  We have spent too many generations living together in tribes to not have some commonality as people.

Fear is a powerful paralytic. Nothing stops movement, effort, and action more than being afraid.  We become hesitant, less confident, and worried.  We begin to second guess are actions and decisions.  Two essential needs in all groups are psychological safety and a belief we have a future with the group.  Without these two needs, our old brain becomes afraid.  We question our ability to fit in and survive.  We start to look for a safe place or acceptance by another group.  In his book Culture Code, Daniel Coyle states high performing cultures are rich in both psychological safety and a feeling of belonging.  Poor performing cultures lack both.

Let’s apply this to PIPs.  Nothing about a PIP makes people feel safe or certain about their future with the group.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Consider this analogy.  A baseball player’s batting average has dropped to an all-time low.  Instead of coaching the player through the problem, we put him on a ninety-day PIP to improve.  Our hope is the player will begin activity or make changes (as described in the PIP) to improve over the next three months.  You can apply this analogy to a salesperson closing deals or a production manager hitting targets.

How safe does the baseball player feel?  What happens psychologically every time he steps up to bat?  Is he worried about striking out? What does he think about his future with the team?  Every part of his old brain is lighting up.  You must survive!  You are at risk!

It is no different in the workplace.  A team member is placed on a PIP.  What happens when she encounters a tough decision?  What happens if she makes the wrong decision?  She becomes paralyzed by the lack of psychological safety.  She questions her belonging on the team.   Let’s apply PIPs to personal relationships.  Your wife puts you on a PIP and says, “You must improve in these areas over the next ninety days, or I am filing for a divorce.”  Most people would think the marriage is over!

PIPs have become management’s last defense before termination.  According to Forbes contributor, Liz Ryan, PIPs send the message, “I control your future, do not cross me.”  She compares PIPs to writing someone up and then putting them on probation. She refers to PIPs as part of the “crusty old management system of the past.”

John Hollon, with Talent Management and HR, states PIPs are not about improvement.  He states they are more about gathering evidence to support a termination.  He says the dirty little secret about PIPs is they do not work.

What message does a past high performer receive when put on a PIP?  I am no longer safe and I do not have a future with this group.  Hollon goes on to state, “the biggest fallacy about a PIP is the time duration.”  Rarely is the time duration for improvement realistic.  This is the first legal argument against the PIP. What is a reasonable time for improvement?  The recipient often has no voice in the duration of a PIP.  People are not going to say, “I can’t improve in thirty days but I might improve in ninety”.  He says employment attorneys call PIPs evil.  Employment lawsuits still follow PIPs.  Why?  People are more likely to file suit out of emotion.  The PIP made them angry.

Rober Glazer, Forbes states PIPs are to buy time when making a people changes, creating a paper trail for legal, and simply do not work.  I agree with the position that PIPs do not address root cause issues.  Great coaches help people understand the root of poor performance.  A skilled manager can learn to coach an individual to surface root causes such as deep value conflict, missing capabilities, role conflict, or job dissatisfaction.  Helping people surface root issues is the recommended alternative to the PIP.  They may ultimately decide it is time to move on.  We can then help them with a transition.

If performance feedback is constant, a PIP is not necessary.  All parties know where they stand.  PIPs are a “band aid” created or tolerated by human resource professionals to work around a management problem.  Ouch!  Does this hurt?

If a baseball player is in a hitting slump, a good coach will take them back to basics like hitting off a stationary tee or soft toss in order to identify bad habits. This rebuilds confidence.   The coach might say, “We have all been in a slump before”.  This modeling of vulnerability creates a foundation for trust.  The player can relate to the coach.  The player feels safe.  The player feels normal.  The player has a future with the team!

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