Steps for Strong PIPs (Performance Improvement Plans)

by Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D.

When the need for a performance improvement plan (PIP) arises, it is important to look at the underlying factors. The root-cause of the situation may not be as easy as “performance.” Instead, it may begin at the onset of the individual’s tenure. Three basic steps exist to a strong performance improvement plan:

  1. Has the team implemented good selection and development processes for their team?
  2. Has the leader discovered the true underlying issues to why the PIP is necessary?
  3. What steps can the leader and individual agree to complete to see improvement?

Let’s explore these steps.

Step 1: Review Your Selection and Development Process
A majority of PIPs may rest on the selection and development of employees. If leaders select and develop their employees with excellence, they are far less likely to be in need of a performance improvement plan.

Rather than focusing specifically on the knowledge, skills and experience of a candidate, leaders should also spend time understanding the “fit” within the organization and the specific strengths that the individual possesses. When these are understood, leaders are less likely to have performance issues arise.

Second, once hired, how much time does the leader spend developing their people? If a leader has regular career investment discussions with their team members (annually, with quarterly follow-ups), they are also less likely to need performance improvement plans. The development aspect should go beyond, “here’s what I need you to do,” and should include “how can I help you be your best?” These development conversations should include aligning an individual’s personal vision with that of the organization.

Step 2: Find the Root Cause
If a performance improvement plan is still necessary, it is important that the leader does not take a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In fact, following a hardline, human resources-type process may do more harm than good.

From the outset of the PIP, a leader should gauge how much responsibility they ought to take for the fact that the PIP has arisen. The first questions a leader should ask themselves are, “Why is the performance improvement plan necessary?” and, “Have I done everything I can to help the individual in need of a performance improvement plan?” The answer to both of these can assist a leader in finding the underlying issue.

If a leader implements a PIP without knowing the causes of the PIP, the plan is bound to fail.

Step 3: Create an Action Plan
Once the PIP is implemented, the leader and individual must agree — in a collaborative environment — what improvement looks like and how the employee can reach the goals they have set. It is important that the leader does not ask for them to “turn the crank faster.”

The discussion should not revolve around being better “just because it’s better to be better” — it must have a course of action different than the course of action already taken.

Next, the leader and individual must come to an agreement on the goals of the PIP. These goals should include a measurable outcome and two to four process steps to reach these goals.
Without an altered path or goals, the PIP is likely to fail.

Goals, Successes and Failures of PIPs
Goals are an important aspect of any organization, and those goals ought to be used at the level of the individual. If individuals are not meeting goals, it is important to review the process. If a PIP is needed, then the leader and the individual must discuss — together — realigning the goals. Again, the root-cause of the issue must be analyzed fully, and the leader should understand whether they have done everything they can do to set the individual up for success.

Failures are frequent with PIPs. For the most part, failures come because leaders tell employees that they put on PIPs what they need to do to improve, without any self-reflection or root-cause analysis. Unfortunately, this approach is the majority method for PIPs.

Performance Improvement Plans yield both successes and failures. All of these best practices fall on leaders, and leaders must look at PIPs as opportunities for improvement in their own leadership.

Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D.

Scott C. Whiteford, Ph.D. is the Director of Leadership Analytics at Talent Plus where his role is to partner with, listen to and find solutions for our clients, their teams and organization. With an emphasis on strengths, through selection and development, he helps our clients find success on their Talent-Based Journey.

“I focus on the strength management approach to help grow leaders and improve team and organization cultures.” – Scott Whiteford

Talents: Relationship, Ego Drive, Focus, Conceptualization and Intelligence