You have an employee that is not meeting performance expectations and you need them to either step up their game or move on. There are a few routes you can take. One is to engage in a proactive feedback and coaching strategy. An alternative is to go the official route and work with your HR department to put the employee on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP).
Let’s just bluntly get out of the way what we all know to be true: PIPs have absolutely nothing to do with performance improvement. They are a way for HR folks to create documentation to fire someone for reasons that typically have little to do with meeting reasonable and objective goals associated with their job. It’s a CYA move to avoid a severance payment.
The concept of helping someone put together a plan to improve their workplace performance is wonderful. However, in 95% of the times I’ve seen PIP’s used, what’s really going on is close to evil: it is nothing but a “paper trail” that looks objective in order to justify firing an employee who everyone knows is a good employee.
So let’s discard the evil PIP and focus on achieving real performance improvement in your employees. That’s done through ongoing feedback and coaching.
- Feedback is top-down communication that is intended to immediately adjust behavior.
- Coaching is a collaborative, ongoing process that is intended to develop employees over time.
In the case of achieving real performance improvement, both elements are necessary to the process – you want to immediately correct behaviors that are getting in the way of success AND help them to develop the skills that will move their professional career forward.
Giving Feedback to Your Subordinates
Support is a key part of our management framework, and a key part of support is proactive feedback. Productive feedback focuses on behavior. Your employees can think and feel anything they want – telling them they can’t think or feel a certain way is not going to help since that’s not the source of the problem. The problem is when thoughts and feelings result in negative behaviors. Here’s a model to follow:
- Ask permission. Communication is what the receiver hears. Therefore, before giving any feedback, ask permission. “Can I give you some feedback?” Most of the time, your employee will say yes and you can proceed with the rest of the model. But if they say no, that’s OK too! Just say OK and move on. If the feedback you were going to give is negative, best case scenario the employee knows what you were going to say and doesn’t repeat the behavior. Worst case, they repeat the behavior and you have another chance to give the feedback. And if they say something like “I know, I know…I shouldn’t have done that” to acknowledge the behavior was wrong before you even have a chance to tell them, don’t beat a dead horse by giving them the feedback anyway – that’s nothing more than a power play and isn’t really productive in adjusting the behavior.
- Focus on behavior and impact. Once you have permission, a great way to frame any type of feedback is as follows: “When you XXX [behavior], it results in YYY [impact].” For example, “When you come late to a meeting, it throws off the agenda” or “When you raise your voice in a meeting, it makes people not want to work with you”. This focuses on their behavior and the impact of it.
- Reinforce desired future behavior. They know what they did and the impact. Now you need to tell them how to behave next time. If they are habitually late to meetings, simply saying “Please make it a point to be on time to the next meeting” is sufficient. That sets the expectation for future behavior.
- Document the feedback. Just because we are avoiding the official HR PIP tactic does not mean that documentation should be avoided – just make a not in your personal file of what type of feedback you gave and the date. This does not need to be in depth – it should just be a reminder in case you need it in the future. That way, if performance doesn’t not improve and you do need to proceed with official action down the road, you have a record of all the feedback you’ve given.
Coaching For Improvement
Coaching is a lot more collaborative than feedback. In this process, it isn’t about you dictating to your employee what you would like to see. It’s about working together to draw and navigate a roadmap to their own personal development. Here’s the process:
- Collaboratively Create a Goal: The first step is to work with your employee to establish the skill they will be working on. This can come from a few places – you may have a skill you need them to improve, or they may have an ideas about areas they would like to professionally develop. Have a discussion in your weekly one-on-one meeting (you’re having those, right?) and come to an agreement. Given that this process is infused into their day-to-day work, it’s best to stick to one goal at a time – the more you put on their plate, the less you set them up for success.
- Collaboratively Brainstorm: Once you’ve decided on a goal, you need to set them up for success. Have an informal brainstorm to come up with some resources that they can use to meet the goal. Again, this should not be a lecture – this is a discussion. Their participation is just as important as yours.
- Individual Execution: In the previous two steps, helped your employee develop a plan of attack. Now it’s time for them to execute on their own. Make sure they understand the deadline they have to meet, when you will work together to assess their results. Typically, it makes sense to assess progress at your weekly one-on-one meetings.
- Collaboratively Assess the Outcome: Finally, it’s time to assess their results. Let your employee lead the conversation by asking them how they think they did, what went well, and what didn’t. Your own feedback is supplemental to their own assessment, which allows them to own the process.
In coaching situations, your employee may not always achieve success on the first try, and that has to be OK – we learn just as much (and sometimes more) from failure as we do from success. Simply start the coaching process over again with the new information and build on it to brainstorm goals and resources that may lead to a different result.
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