Putting your company on a PIP

In this post I talk about flipping around a common management tactic – the PIP – to help people move through periods where they’re feeling unhappy at work

PIPs, or Performance Improvement Plans, are a topic that come up frequently when talking about managing people. Some people swear by them, others less so.

In a nutshell, the idea is that if an employee’s underperforming, they work with their manager to agree a plan for improvement over a set timescale. This is a formal document involving commitments from the employee and the business of what will happen and when, and both parties check in regularly to see whether that’s being met. If not, it can ultimately lead to a dismissal.

This post isn’t a viewpoint on PIPs in that sense, so if you’re here to find out more on that front I’m afraid it’s back to the search engine for you (but actually, maybe stick around and read anyway?). What I’d like to share today is a post that flips the PIP on its originally-intended head, so that the employee becomes the one putting the company on a PIP.

Setting out a plan can help you take control of unhappiness

ℹ️ Before I get into any more detail, I want to pause and say that all credit for this approach should go to my former colleague and all-round wise owl, Robin Murphy. He’s given his kind permission for me to write up a resource in case it was useful to others.

At the end of last year, Robin and I went on a walking 1:1 so that I could get some advice. During that, he raised the concept of putting your company on a PIP. We talked through a few different angles, but the following is roughly how I’ve used it, and what I’ve subsequently recommended to others.

Rather than wallowing in abstract “I’m not happy” feelings which can go on for an indefinite amount of time, putting together a PIP can help you to understand what kind of improvement would make you happy, and whether that’s truly achievable. If it is, then it helps you to set out a path, gain a bit of control over a situation, and ultimately move past unhappiness. If the level of ‘performance’ needed isn’t achieveable, then it may be time for you to be doing the dismissal, and move on to another role.

As with a PIP that an employee could be put on, think about mapping out:

  • An overall goal
  • Things to measure, or points to hit
  • Associated timescales to meet these
  • What you expect yourself to do to help hit the target
  • What you expect the company to do to help hit the target
  • When you’ll check in on how much progress has been made

An overall goal could be something like “move past my frustration about X being promoted over me”, “counter feeling burnt out”, or “feel like my contributions are recognised appropriately”. This is a high-level aim to help you keep focused on what your main issue is.

Underneath this are the points you want to specially track against. Some examples could be binary, like “move to a new team”, “work with a Tech Lead”, “have the opportunity to show I can lead a project”, “be promoted”, or it could be tracking trends or metrics like “nights I struggle to sleep because of work” or “times I work late in a week”. Think carefully not only about the points, but also about realistic timescales. These will be very personal, and depend entirely on spending some time to identify practical and meaningful steps forward towards the overall goal.

Beware the anti-patterns

Be careful not to fall into the trap of looking for easy way outs - for instance if you’re finding it tough to work with another person on your team, is the answer to move to a new area of the business by next quarter, or is it actually to build an understanding with that person?

It’s also important to note that not all (or not any!) of those points may be the company’s fault. You may struggle to sleep because you’re practicing poor sleep hygiene. It may be unrealistic to move teams because you don’t have the skills yet. Just as a company may not always set employees up for success, and can need to make commitments accordingly, make sure you’re thinking objectively about things that you need to do differently too. What will you do to best set the company up for success in this situation?

Is this even worth doing?

At this point, it’s worth taking a step back and looking over what you’ve come up with. Is it fair? Is it realistic? Are you going into this with a positive attitude? Can you truly move past the feelings that you have, or even if all of the points get met will you still be unhappy?

If so, it may be worth considering how honest you’re being with yourself, and asking the big question: whether you want to invest the time and energy you’d spend putting into making this change happen, and perhaps spend it looking for a new job instead.

Many disclaimers apply!

As with any suggestions you read on the internet, please obviously consider that your situation may be very, very different. Doing something like this could help, but worst case it could also put you and your job at risk.

In some situations you may feel like your relationship with your manager allows you to bring them into this process, and to have an honest and productive conversation about where your career is going and what your hopes and expectations are. On the other hand this may be something you keep private as it may not be safe to share that you’re unhappy and thinking about leaving, or your manager could receive your set of expectations poorly.

There’s also another aspect that Robin was keen that I stress when I mentioned my intention to share this post. Being able to leave a job for a different one because it’s not meeting all of your expectations is a huge privilege, and one that not everyone will be able to do. You may also not be in a position to make any changes, either on your side or the company’s side.

Please use your judgement here, and only do what makes the most sense for your situation 🙏

And they all lived happily ever after

Hopefully thinking about practical steps to move forward in this way can help you regain a sense of control over a situation, and move past unhappiness. It’s also useful to remind ourselves what we can influence to help get to where we want, or understand aspects that are completely out of our hands.

If you decide to try this out, good luck, and I hope that it helps!

Header photo by Estúdio Bloom