July 22

How to get past a performance improvement plan

So, you’ve got a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). You know the stakes.

You get better, or you get sacked.

As simple as that.

When these things happen, there are many thoughts that go through your head.

I feel like a failure.

I don’t care! I’m just going to leave!

You might wonder who I am to say this.

Well, I confess.

I’m on a PIP too. This is the fifth month of my 6-month journey through the PIP.

It sucks.

Really.

It’s painful. It forces you to question what you’re doing. It causes you to second-guess yourself, wondering if you’re doing the right thing.

It can cause you to feel terribly ashamed. Not just that you’ve done something bad… but that you are bad.

The PIP can cause you to be stuck in shame.
The PIP can cause you to be stuck in shame.

You might even end up losing your passion for work.

It makes you think,

Am I good enough?

It also makes you think,

Why don’t I just leave, since the company can’t appreciate what I’m doing?

I want to share some thoughts to help you make the best of this process. Yes, it can be a painful process, but you can use it to come through transformed.

Not just passing the PIP, but coming through transformed.

Stop running.

When you receive the negative feedback that results in the PIP, our first human reaction is to defend ourselves.

After all, accepting it means you’re saying,

I suck. And that’s true.

Recently, I had an offer to leave. You might think,

John, why don’t you just leave?

And yes, it was very tempting to leave. It was tempting to pack my bags, and go!

But the one thing that stopped me was this.

I knew that the issues that were raised were recurrent issues.

Issues regarding my teamwork, my arrogance at work, and my lack of submission to supervisors were problems that had been raised at past workplaces.

Ask yourself,

Are you running away from the problems that have been raised of your work?

You might say,

But these issues have to do with my personality, not my work performance!

You can’t expect me to change my personality, right?

But here’s something to consider.

What if your personality impacts your performance?

You probably have seen go-to people in your company.

They are the ones who are approachable, friendly, and always seem to get things done. It’s a joy working with them.

Their attitude is top-class.

Do you want to be like them?

Stop running.

Take ownership of the problem.

Ask yourself,

What is my share of responsibility in the problem?

Ask yourself, what can I do to contribute, rather than to cause greater problems?
Ask yourself, what can I do to contribute, rather than to cause greater problems?

It takes two hands to clap.

As much as you might blame your workplace, supervisors or others for causing the problem, maybe both are at fault.

Not just you.

Reflect on the recurrent issues.

Before I came back to Singapore, I had a similar PIP whilst on a student placement. It was called a concerns procedure. This is where the supervisor raises concerns that you might fail your placement.

I kept my head down, followed what she wanted, and got out.

To be honest, I didn’t fully own what she said of me.

I thought what she was saying was not valid.

A year later, it appeared again at work.

You can leave.

But let me guess… you will probably take your problems and baggage with you.

Imagine you’re climbing a mountain.

You have a heavy backpack. You’re walking in a strange way up the mountain, rather than straight up.

Someone suggests a different way.

You say,

Nah, I don’t care. I’m going to do it my way.

I’m going to get lost!

Let’s be gentle for a moment.

I would like you to look at the issues that have been raised.

Are they recurrent issues? For these problems to appear in a PIP is painful.

The PIP can cause you to feel like an ant under a microscope, but it's necessary for you to think about what you can learn from this process.
The PIP can cause you to feel like an ant under a microscope, but it’s necessary for you to think about what you can learn from this process.

But my guess is that this isn’t the first time you’re hearing of them.

Recently, I met my therapist. I was sharing how pained I was from this experience, and how much I wanted to quit.

In a gentle voice, he says to me,

Pain that is not transformed is transferred.

This is a chance for you to transform your pain, rather than transfer to another workplace, another supervisor, another role.

To transform your pain into something meaningful, and something that grows you.

Take the time to reflect on your failure with the questions below.

These questions are adapted from Guy Winch’s ‘Emotional First Aid’.

  1. What should I do differently next time?
  2. What opportunities might my failure possibly present?
  3. In what ways might my failure make me stronger?
  4. What ways are my failures a success?
  5. How much more will success mean to you now that you’ve encountered failure?
  6. Can you identify ways you derived meaning and satisfaction as you pursued your goal?

It’s not what you do, but what you are becoming.

This is so important that I’m going to write it again.

It’s not what you do.

It’s what you are becoming.

I don’t want to sugarcoat a PIP. It is painful. It can be destructive to your confidence.

But it can be a good opportunity, if you allow it to be.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself bargaining.

I’ve found myself counting down the days before the PIP ends. Wanting to get out of it, run away, escape!

But the only way, I know, and you know too, is through.

It’s through this that you become more of who you are, and who you can be.

To give yourself hope in this process, envision who you might become at the end of this journey. You will see the clear descriptors of what you’re supposed to meet or fulfil.

  • What would it look like if you hit them?

Give meaning to it.

If man has a why, he will get through any how.

Viktor Frankl penned these words after going through the Holocaust. I’m not trying to compare your PIP to the Holocaust.

In looking at your PIP, give it meaning.

When you work with people with these developmental issues in future, you will find yourself better able to relate to them.

You will find yourself humbled by this experience, and growing from it.

You will find yourself facing the suck of emotions, and learning to lean into it, rather than away from it.

Progress, not perfection

Your PIP process is painful.

Don’t make it more painful by torturing yourself through it.

You’re going to face self-doubt. You’re going to second-guess yourself. You probably feel like a shell of your confident self.

Well, celebrate the progress each day that you’re making towards the goals in PIP.

However small it is.

Recently, a colleague thanked me for doing something well.

Another colleague invited me for a meal.

All these are small things, but they are hugely important in recognising the progress you’re making towards the PIP’s goals.

It gives you hope that you’re moving forward. You’re not stuck in the quicksand of your emotions.

The reason you feel horrible about PIP is because you feel stuck.

The way forward is always discomforting, because you’re not sure if you’re going the right way.

That’s why you celebrate movement, however small it is.

Each day, celebrate progress. I find it useful to write down 2 things I’m proud of doing that day, and 1 thing I can improve on.

This helps you to be focused on progress, rather than perfection.

Conclusion

When I look back at this PIP process, I know that it’s going to be painful.

Just as during the different occasions where I have been sacked, had concerns procedures, and been told off.

But through it all, I know that one day…

Hold onto hope that one day, things will be better.
Hold onto hope that one day, things will be better.

You can lift your head up to the sky, taste the sky, and feel alive again.

So keep breathing.

We’ll get through this.

And come through, better, and becoming your best self.


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