Dear Matt –
Thanks for writing and asking for help with succeeding in your Personal Improvement Plan (PIP), also called a Personal Development Plan or a Performance Improvement Plan. You’ve already read the Basic Guidance. Here are some advanced tips.
Lots of times, the PIP is written based around the irritations of others. So the PIP is full of vague requests. If your PIP includes vague requests, it means it’s hard for you to know what exactly to do. (A good critique is a critique of visible or audible behavior.)
A bad critique might look like, “I need you to increase my confidence in your good judgment.” What is that supposed to look like?
A good critique looks like, “Matt, when you _(observable_behavior)_ the impact that has is _(observable_outcome)_.”
“Matt, when you issue a press release under your boss’ name without showing it to her first or getting her approval, that has the impact of increasing risk exposure for the organization, it makes me mad, it makes me trust you less, and it reflects badly on your judgment. In the future, can you get appropriate approvals for all press releases before you issue them?”
Fixing a Bad PIP
What if your PIP is full of vagueness?
You need to draft better language that’s clearer, and ask to modify the PIP with that clearer language.
Example of a vague PIP entry: “Item #1: Written work products have been turned in below expected quality.”
What is “expected quality”? Maybe you know, in which case, that’s awesome. If not, you will probably need to seek (respectfully) to get clarification on what “expected quality” is. Until that’s defined to mutual clarity and understanding, you’re at risk of thinking you’re doing it right while the other guy thinks you’re doing it wrong.
Here’s one way to engage on this point:
Tell your boss that you feel the firm deserves to have a very strong writer in your position, and you’re determined to become the best writer in the group. Find out who the current best writer is, and bring them coffee and ask for a tiny bit of coaching (don’t be a burden), and copy their style, and periodically ask smart people for advice and to compare your work to this other person’s work, always seeking specifics.
(For clearer writing, your best resource is Joseph Williams’ book Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. )
Project or Task Completion
PIPs often involve project planning and task execution and status reporting. Here are some guidelines.
- Every task should include the reporting of that task. So never give or accept an assignment like “Fix the fromitz.” Reword it as “Fix the fromitz and inform Joe by email that it’s fixed.”
- Keep a master list of “projects” in the GTD sense of that term, and for each one, have the one “immediate physical next step” clearly identified.
- Share this list of projects weekly with stakeholders via whatever format they like.
- Identify the “natural style” of your stakeholders. Some will love the written word, others prefer spoken. Some love long detailed complete info, others prefer brief status. There are lots of variabilities. Make a written list of your communications stakeholders and find out their preferences — ask them, ask their direct reports, test them out. Always communicate with them in their preferred style. (You can create a hybrid style that has a brief summary up front, a detailed version afterward, and email it and leave a short voice mail summarizing the contents for those who like verbal.)
For example, I work with a guy who, if you’re not in the room with him, you aren’t real — even if he talks with you on the phone five times a day while you’re remote, it’s not the same. I’ve learned to show up in his office once a week just to soothe his emotions. He has no idea he’s this way. It makes a huge difference in his comfort level.
Getting Honest Immediate Feedback
The biggest need anyone on a PIP has is, how do I get immediate feedback on my behavior when it’s wrong, or when it’s borderline?
It’s very easy for timid people to hold back, not tell you what you need to hear, or only tell you after it’s too late.
So how do you encourage them to speak up in the moment? You have to make it clear that you’re serious, and make it safe.
One technique that works wonders is, to offer a reward and a “thank you” — it works like this:
Jo interrupts people and doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. It’s so bad that she has it on her PIP to stop doing it. But she’s naturally loud and confident, and she intimidates a lot of her coworkers.
So, I told Jo to tell each coworker:
- “I really need your help on this. I want to get better. I want to stop interrupting. I just need your help noticing it.”
- “Because I really need and value your input, I’m asking you to point it out to me every single time I interrupt.”
- “When you do, I will give you $1 and say ‘thank you.’ And I’ll mean it. Would you be willing to support me in becoming a more considerate coworker?”
Then Jo had to stock up on dollar bills. One day and $12 later, she was a LOT more aware of her actions, and her coworkers were having a blast interrupting her interruptions.
(You can substitute a $1 contribution to the coffee fund, if there are rules in your workplace around money exchanges.)
For another worker earning minimum wage, I set the price at $0.25 — and handed him a roll of quarters.
I guided him to make this offer — he needed to stop whining and complaining — at a staff meeting, in front of everyone. I told him any quarters he didn’t give away, were his to keep. Again, it was extremely effective.
Even without offering money, you can make everyone who gives you feedback glad they did by being grateful, humble, and eager — NEVER be defensive in any way. Always thank them for taking the trouble to share their perspective with you. If they feel it’s true, then for them, IT’S TRUE. Treat it as their truth.
I hope this helps. I’d love to check in with you in a few weeks to see how it’s going.
Best of luck.