PIP or Drive for performance improvement?

My first private sector job was with an insurance company. Part of the induction included familiarizing myself with the Equal Opportunities Policy and learning about the products and services the company offered: one of these was life insurance. I learned that smokers were charged a higher premium than non-smokers, the company did not allow smoking in the workplace and there were policies and programmes in place to discourage the habit. I also learned that the company had an executive dining room where senior staff could eat away from their subordinates but subordinates were allowed to invite guests to lunch there with permission and if the guest was special enough to warrant it.

My first (and only) time I got permission to take a guest we enjoyed a pleasant meal at the end of which the waiter came to our table and offered my guest (a man) a cigar. I said nothing in the moment but was struck on two counts: I was not offered a cigar because I was a woman – thus a contravention of our Equal Opportunities Policy, and second the company had a policy of discouraging smoking so another contravention. (I decided that taking on the notion of an executive dining room was a bridge too far.)

Later that day I wrote a note to the Chief Executive describing the event and asking whether in tune with our policies we should stop the cigar passing. A couple of days later I was summoned to my manager's office. He was beside himself with rage a) that I had written to the CEO without his permission b) that calling into question the practice showed I wasn't demonstrating the 'right' behaviours c) my behaviour reflected badly on him demonstrating he could not control his staff.

I was not put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) – in fact in the UK this can only legally happen if you are not carrying out work to a satisfactory standard – but this incident came to mind last week when I was talking with someone who'd just been put on a PIP. He was furious and very upset because it was for an incident entirely outside his control (to do with a third party contract) and he was doing his best to sort it out. His manager asked him 'How will I explain to my managers that my staff can't solve this problem?' One of his colleagues told of a similar event.

These stories, combined with a report received and similar stories heard in the prior few weeks, led me to wonder if PIPs are less about supporting employees and more about a managerial tactic to cover their backs and protect their own interests.

What I found was not encouraging. There was the thing about managers' self-interest additionally PIPs seem to be:

  • Associated with cultures of fear
  • Used as excuses for not engaging staff in supportive performance conversations
  • Taken as a pathway to lay-off someone with a formal audit trail
  • Demonstrations of a managerial 'look tough and thus good' activity
  • A disincentive to staff to try out new things, be curious, or give quality service (particularly in call centres where call targets are set)
  • Feared as a part of a staff ranking systems where pay awards are made on a forced distribution system so each manager has to have a 'bottom 10%' of staff
  • Symptomatic of lack of supervisor/subordinate trust
  • Devoid of recognition of the contextual factors on performance
  • Perceived as unfair

Looking at the list above it would be easy to assume that in general PIPs seem to be part of a disciplinary process, a penalty and a disincentive to improve performance, rather than a helpful and supportive way of engaging and motivating employees in a culture of trust, mutual respect and open-ness. This reflects in the language and approach of the PIP template forms I looked at. For example, the UK's CIPD template for performance improvement plans (following ACAS guidelines on managing performance) is both formal and daunting in its language e.g. 'What is the employee required to do now'.

Even those in favour of them said they should be used cautiously, judiciously and with the accompaniment of meaningful supportive conversations, useful and achievable objectives, and an honest intent to develop the employee. See the Institute of Employment Studies suggestions.

Contrast PIPs with Daniel Pink's view on what drives engagement and performance:

1. Autonomy – our desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery – our urge to get better at stuff; we like to get better at stuff.
3. Purpose – the enjoyment we get from making a contribution and a difference.

You can see him talking about it in a delightful RSA Animate 'Drive'. The transcript of the talk sums up with Pink saying, 'And I think that the big takeaway here is that if we start treating people like people and not assuming that they're simply horses, you know, slower, smaller, better smelling horses, if we get past this kind of ideology of carrots and sticks and look at the science I think we can actually build organisations and work lives that make us better off, but I also think they have the promise to make our world just a little bit better.'

PIP and Drive are two very different routes to performance improvement. In retrospect these show in my cigar incident outlined above. I was in Drive mindset and my manager was in PIP mindset. I acted as if I had the autonomy to make the comment, I thought it would be helpful to the organisation's image to point out an inconsistency between organisational statements and actions, and I wanted to improve the organisation and make a difference. It didn't occur to me that as a consequence of my well-intentioned memo I would reprimanded by a furious manager and threatened with 'further action' if I ever did anything similar.

So do PIPs smack of the command and control organisation and Drive of the new 'social' organisation? And in an organisation that is striving to transform from command and control to social (see the graphic analogue to digital – exhibit 1 – in the report Building a Digital Culture which is a neat if overly simple summary of this) does one have to take a path from PIP to Drive, and if so what is the path and how easy would it be to take?

Looking at the graphic surely the answer must be 'yes' – if an organisation is promulgating the attributes of 'digital' which anyone who has a smartphone, Facebook account, or similar is meeting in their non-work lives – then the work frameworks need to adjust similarly. There are several examples of organisations recognizing this. Read Donna Morris of Adobe talking about performance reviews – just dropped by the company, "We were aggressively moving from being a boxed software company toward having a strong subscription service for our digital media business. The business all around was changing, but the mechanisms to manage and support our employees were stuck in a time warp." And in 2013 both Microsoft and Expedia dropped their forced ranking system of performance reviews. But now, I hear some people say, those organisations were already digital.

OK, even if an organisation is not that interested in adopting the attributes of digital, the external social, demographic and technology context is changing so rapidly that analogue organisational frameworks are unlikely to be fit for purpose for very long as in their non-work lives employees steep themselves in digitally enabled collaboration, comment and input to private and public sector organisations in their roles as customer, community member or citizen. Organisations have to keep pace with the context.

Granted the challenge of moving an analogue organisation's performance (and other) systems into ones more appropriate for employees in a digital society is big. But most people like challenges – they call for autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Do you have any examples of established analogue organisations that are setting off down PIP to Drive path whether or not they are heading for digital? Is your organisation? Let me know.