March 2016
Volume 7, Issue 3

Coaching for Success and Performance Improvement Plans

A careful approach is crucial when managing underperforming employees

By Frank Manfre

Many organizations use performance improvement plans (PIPs) when one of their employees is not performing at an acceptable level. These are also referred to as corrective action plans (CAPs). In either case, they are based on critical success factors (CSFs) or key performance indicators (KPIs) — specific quantitative and qualitative measurements that demonstrate if the employee is meeting pre-set standards for that particular position.

Quantitative measurements might include units produced per hour, reporting to work on time, and remakes. Qualitative measurements can gauge how well the employee interacts with teammates or customers, or other behavioral indicators. How he or she dresses and personal grooming are also qualitative, and frankly subjective, but quite often valid unless it infringes on the person’s religious beliefs.

While implementing CSFs is not a bad thing, many managers fail to effectively engage with the employee as a coach. The most effective leaders assist their underperforming team members as a coach invested in their success. Notice that manager has been changed to leader and employee to team member. This is not simple semantics; it reflects a mindset that positions a leader’s role as one who inspires and guides the people they have the privilege of leading to help them achieve organizational and personal goals. This should be part of every leader’s personal mission statement.

There must be accountability and consequences, but only weak leaders threaten and cajole their people. Employees should know the minimum standards of the company and realize you have the right to fire them if need be. If the underperformer doesn’t know what the objectives and measurements are, you need only look in a mirror for the culprit.

Do not waste time threatening people with termination or probation. Adopting a stern “I am the boss” and “you must do better or else” persona is a poor long-term strategy that will lead to high turnover. People want to be led, not managed. Effective leaders review the CSFs with their people up front and provide regular feedback and coaching. Even with people they didn’t hire but inherited, they see it as their job to help them succeed. Indeed, in the best organizations the leaders who get promoted are the ones who effectively coach their people, including the underperformers, to success.

So when one of your people is not performing to the agreed-upon standard, it is time to develop a Personal Development Plan (PDP). Try to avoid using the terms PIP or CAP. Again, some will say it’s just a matter of semantics, but the words improvement and corrective may have a negative connotation, whereas development has a more positive one. Also, a PDP created jointly is a good idea for all of your people at the beginning of the year, not just the ones who are off track. Start with the end in mind. What does success look like? Then work backward. What are the steps and milestones? Keep it simple. Here are steps to creating an effective PDP:

1. Help employees set the intention. Are they committed to taking the action required to be successful? While the vast majority of people want to do a good job and contribute to the success of their team, some simply do not. Maybe things have changed in their life, or maybe they were a bad hire. Other times the person simply isn’t up to the task. If the performance criteria or skills required have changed in response to external factors such as disruptive technologies, companies are required to adapt or die. Despite additional training and coaching, some people just don’t make it. That is unfortunate, but they will have to move on, either to a different position in your organization or to another organization. There is also the problem of “won’t” versus “can’t.” Let’s face it: Some people are smart and can be trained and coached, but still refuse to change or accept reality. If you give them the opportunity to develop new skills to serve in a new role and they resist, then they need to move on; they have in effect deselected themselves.

2. Set realistic steps to success. Having an unrealistic path to meeting standards is setting an employee up for failure. That doesn’t serve the person, you, or the organization well. Ensure that the employee goes into developing this plan with eyes wide open. They may try to impress you with stretch goals to demonstrate willingness to go the extra mile. Remind them that even the best plans can go awry. Have them answer the question, “What actions can I take if things don’t go according to plan?” Encourage open communication during regularly scheduled update discussions. A person hiding setbacks from you is likely to fail, and that reflects poorly on you. If you do not know when your employee is off track, you cannot help the situation.

3. Establish time limits. Time lines with milestones for specific actions help impose discipline. Without them, the plans are likely to be “pie in the sky” wishful thinking. In your regular update reviews, be sure to maintain a supportive tone. Avoid statements such as, “Why haven’t you met that deadline?” A better approach is to say, “I’m here to help you. Please let me know when you encounter an obstacle or setback that will keep you from meeting the objective so we can figure it out together.” It is not necessary to coddle people who are being paid to do a job, but it is also not necessary to shame them. Remember, the goal is to get them back on track and to keep them there.

4. Break it into bite-sized pieces. There is an old saying: “Yard by yard it’s hard, but inch by inch it’s a cinch.” Organizational theorist Karl Weick, a psychologist from the University of Michigan says, “When an obstacle appears to be too big, complex, or difficult, people become overwhelmed and freeze.” So help employees break down the path to high performance into achievable steps. You will have a good sense of whether they are committed to, and capable of, executing the plan over 30-60 days by observing a series of small successes. Be sure to reinforce the positive behavior with praise. That is inspirational, empowering coaching.

Frank Manfre is an author, lecturer, business coach, and consultant based in Atlanta, Georgia, and serves on the board of directors of the Georgia Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

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