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Performance improvement plans are last resorts. What's first?

Published 28th February 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Performance graph going up

Busting a myth about performance improvement plans

Performance improvement plans are supposed to be action plans for underperforming employees, designed to bring their performance up to satisfactory levels. That’s what they’re sold as.

In reality, they aren’t designed to improve performance.They are a not-too-subtle way of ‘managing someone out of the company.’ Everyone knows this. When a manager puts someone on a performance improvement plan, they want them gone.

That’s why performance improvement plans are last resorts for organisations dealing with employees that aren’t gelling. If you genuinely want to improve someone’s performance, there are so many things you can do to help them.

Improving performance the proper way: 6 ways to do it

Root cause analysis

It’s human nature to assume the worst. If they have performed poorly from the beginning, you may assume they were a wrong hire or are lazy. If they’ve stopped performing well, your mind will jump to disengagement or that they’re about to jump ship.

You need to look at the evidence so you can actually name the underperformance - just calling it underperformance doesn’t help. What type of underperformance is it? Are they shirking responsibility? Failing to communicate well? Not meeting targets? Not all underperformance is created equally.

Once you’ve identified the root cause of the poor performance, you can take steps to address it. You may not even have to involve the employee.

Employee development plans

Ownership and buy-in are essential to the success of any behavioural change. People don’t tend to change their behaviour if they are told to do something: they need to feel part of the creation process.

While performance improvement plans are unilateral action plans driven by managers to fix a problem identified by managers, employee development plans are shared documents, created by both manager and employee, that help the employee self-develop to achieve both personal and organisational goals.

Reimagining performance problems as development areas reduces the potential for anxiety, mistrust and confrontation, and helps build the employee’s confidence, skills and future potential.

Flexible working

Failure to thrive can present as underperformance when we force employees to conform to a specific way of working, at specific times, instead of giving them freedom to optimise their own schedules and workloads.

Say you’re a newspaper employing a team of journalists and one of them occasionally slips and misses the deadline for a news story. Maybe they can’t cope with the ‘busy newsroom’ environment and need quiet to get final drafts completed. Letting them work from home on certain days, or in different rooms, may be all it takes to fix the problem.

Flexible working is a powerful management tool, not just an employee benefit.

Mentoring arrangements

Some people are better at self-development than others and with the world changing rapidly, self-development and upskilling are important steps in maintaining effectiveness over time.

A good mentor is able to help the mentee identify areas of low confidence or poor capability, proactively address them and help them build their ability to self-reflect, identify problem areas and take action.

Another benefit of the mentoring relationship is the long-term trust built, which can encourage honesty and the identification of problem areas before they become underperformance.

Capability analysis

Perhaps the underperformance is a simple capability problem: the person is trying hard but cannot figure out how to optimise and make something work. People have to do more with less nowadays and capability gaps are a common cause of underperformance across organisations.

Maybe product quality is poor coming off a manufacturing line and you’ve identified an employee responsible for the defect. Perhaps a new piece of machinery has been delivered and the person hasn’t been adequately trained, or has been trained and has misunderstood a feature.

We often assume long-time employees are masters of all skills, but don’t forget things change so rapidly that unless skills are kept up-to-date, even the most seasoned pro can find themselves struggling.

Honest conversations

There’s always the old-fashioned honest conversation and this is particularly useful when it’s hard to pinpoint the underperformance as a specific issue or know what the cause is.

It’s also useful when someone has generally performed well and the underperformance is unexpected or acute. Maybe something’s happened in their personal life, or a new project has them stressed out and it’s causing sleepless nights.

These types of conversations also build trust, and allow both employee and manager to jointly develop a way to bring performance back up to scratch. This could be as simple as giving them a couple of mornings off to deal with the family problem.