How to ace your personal improvement plan

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Business tips
Friday, July 12, 2013


07.12.13 Blog ImprovementUh oh. You just got put on probation at work — your boss and HR gave you a “Personal Improvement Plan”.

The bad news is, you’re now half-way to being fired.

The good news is, you now have the opportunity to completely change the way people see you at work, and even boost your career.

What’s a Personal Improvement Plan?

A Personal Improvement Plan is a halfway point to firing someone — usually because they cannot do their job, or cannot work well with others, or both. Most times, it is an honest attempt to help the employee improve. Sometimes, it is a formality just before firing, to shield the employer from a wrongful termination suit.

Either way, if you’ve been handed a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP), your job is on the line.

Here’s how Sam handled his, and became a superstar.

How to Handle It – Mindset

How you handle yourself during the PIP process will make or break your success. The most crucial aspect is your mindset.

The most common reaction is the worst: to deny the legitimacy of the problem.

Let’s put that to rest: it doesn’t matter if your boss made a mistake, it doesn’t matter if somebody else messed up too, and it doesn’t matter if somebody else did the same thing. If your reaction to the PIP is “I’m misunderstood, I didn’t do anything wrong, and I’m not going to change” then you should quit before you’re fired.

It doesn’t even matter, right now, if your boss is flat out wrong.

When you get put on a PIP, all that matters is that your boss has positional power over you. That’s the reality. It may not be fair, and if your PIP is based on flawed data, it’s not reasonable. But it is so.

There are three truths that are always true, and you deny them at your risk:

  1. We are here.
  2. It is now.
  3. This is the way things are.

Even if you plan to completely change “the way things are” — you have to start here. The most ineffective people are ineffective because they deny one or more of these truths. They get so wrapped up in how things “ought to be” that they forget to, or fail to, deal with what is.

Why a PIP is an Opportunity

Your boss (and some of your other coworkers) may have formed a bad, and maybe a mistaken, opinion of you.

You may have been pigeon-holed.

Sam was. His boss felt Sam was too “risky” on his projects. Once Sam was labeled the “cowboy” all his decisions were presumed to be risky ones. Sam’s prudent choices were overlooked, and his arguably more bold choices were assumed to be super risky. It was a bad reputation to have in his firm.

Sam discovered this: the PIP gives you an excuse to behave in totally new ways — and other people will actually notice.

During the first few weeks on your PIP, if you behave in new ways, people will actually notice. Done right, this can get you out of the negative pigeon-hole for good.

What Not to Ask – People and Proof

Don’t ask your boss or HR who else thinks you’re bad. It’s not about personalities.
Don’t ask what the minimum is that you need to do. This looks like you don’t take the PIP seriously.
Don’t ask for additional proof of your errors. That ship already sailed.

What to Ask – Behaviors

Do ask for clarification on how to comply with the PIP.

Sam was told he needed a peer to sign off on certain project decisions — but the list of decisions was incomplete and vague. Sam wisely asked for detail so he could be sure to comply — and wrote up a list of specific suggestions, making it easy for his boss to edit the list and give it back quickly.

You also need to sniff out any vague or subjective language. If your PIP says you need to “get better,” ask for a number or a metric, and suggest one — a 50% improvement on a quality metric, or “100% of key project decisions are signed off by a peer in writing before being acted on.” And you need a list of which decisions are “key.”

Sam was given an incomplete PIP and no list of which tasks were “key.” This could have blown up in his face, if he’d made a decision he felt wasn’t “key” and someone else later decided it was. I told him he needed to get that list made explicit — and he needed to go the extra mile of drafting a suggested list.

What to Tell Others

Your staff and co-workers will find out you’re on a PIP. So, be the first to tell them.

Use language like this — it focuses on how they can help, and casts you as a supportive participant, not a victim. Here’s what Sam sent:

“I could really use your help. Fred and I have decided I am going to be getting a peer to sign off on specific ‘key’ project decisions for the next six months. That will require coordination with various other engineers, and close attention to calendars and confirmations.

“Not everyone is familiar with this sign-off process. This is part of our normal quality control process, and one that I am happy and pleased to support. I’ll share with you shortly the list of things that will need a second set of eyes and a written sign-off.

“You can help me enormously by being aware of this new requirement, by helping me find and schedule people to review the work, and by helping carefully record and track sign-offs. I really appreciate your help. Thanks.”

Be sure to look on the sunny side of the PIP in all conversations with others. Everyone will expect you to dislike or resent it. This will make them — and especially most bosses — reluctant to talk about it, and they may “brace themselves” and expect a fight during every conversation about the PIP. Those won’t be happy or constructive conversations.

So you can pleasantly surprise your boss (and everyone else) by taking the positive attitude that you’re going to use the PIP to improve yourself.

Sam’s boss nearly sabotaged him by giving him a vague and incomplete PIP — and then offering to clarify it “in a few weeks” — when Sam was making project decisions daily. It turns out, Sam’s boss is an introvert who hated conflict, and who dreaded the PIP conversations.

When Sam showed up being positive and pro-active, his boss was astonished, and eventually delighted that the conversations he’d been dreading were in fact positive and pleasant.

For your PIP, tell your boss and yourself, “I’m committed to doing anything and everything I have to do, to make my work excellent.”

Locus of Control

Your “locus of control” is the location where you mentally imagine most of the control is, for a given situation. Some people think everything is luck — good or bad. Others think everybody else is powerful, that they themselves are powerless. Both these have an “external locus of control.” This leads them to be passive and miss opportunities to influence outcomes.

To be effective generally — and especially when you have a PIP in effect — you need to massively develop an “internal locus of control.”

I coached Sam to never say anything like “I was late because the traffic was bad.” Instead he was to say “I was late because I failed to allow enough time for traffic — and I’ll be more careful next time.”

In reality none of us have 100% control over our environments or our outcomes all the time. Maybe we average 50% control. The trick is, to be 100% focused on whatever is under our control. The person who has only 5% influence on an outcome — and is 100% focused on their share of that influence — will ultimately be far more effective.

Having an “internal locus of control” is powerful for three reasons:

  1. Other people will like it, and thus like you
  2. Your morale will be higher
  3. You’ll act, faster and more decisively, on the right things

Read more about it here. You can take a Locus of Control self-test here.

Sam’s Outcome

Sam was able to use his PIP as a wake-up call for himself, to re-think how he was working with his peers. He saw that he’d been leaving people out of the loop, making decisions without explaining them. By systematically seeking peer input and educating his peers on his thought processes, he ended up changing very few of his decisions — however his peers finally saw how he thought, and why he made the decisions he did. Their confidence in him shot up, and his boss soon heard about it.

The PIP became Sam’s opportunity to change his work and his relationships for the better. Yours could be too.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.


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