Can There Be a Compassionate PIP?

Christina Wodtke
Jun 10, 2018 · 4 min read

I found this in my drafts box. It was written for creative founder. It looks essentially complete, so I’m releasing it to that class publication. It’s important to understand the context: it was a short note written for a 15 week class in which people were placed into a team and had to deal with teammates for the entire time. They tended to crack around week 6, when they realized the problem wasn’t going away and couldn’t be waited out. The class would let you fire a teammate, but you had to give them real feedback and a chance to fix it first. Getting fired would result in a grade drop, so there was motivation to change. PIPs have to be overseen by a teacher, to avoid unfairness. It was a crazy thing to do, and it worked incredibly well.

There seems to be some curiosity, maybe even eagerness, around PIPs. I understand. By now you have all probably been on a team where a team member was not performing to your expectations, and felt frustrated and unable to do anything. However, in this class we’ll do it much like it is done in the real world, with a Performance Improvement Plan including tracking change formally.

I have put more than one person on a PIP in the workplace. It is not done lightly, but we also cannot let bad situations fester; that leads to learned helplessness. The biggest surprise for me is that many people get better with real concrete feedback. Being forced to give a PIP forces you to get good at feedback, and allows you to avoid future PIP’s. After all, if you can give people feedback early, they have a chance to change. But sometimes people resist change until severe consequences are attached. Thus: the PIP.

MOST IMPORTANT: You cannot put a team member on a PIP without the permission of Kate Rutter, (my co-instructor at the time) and I first. This is to ensure fairness.

Step 0. Start writing down issues you have with the team member when you see it. Only talk about observable behavior.

OK: You’ve been late three times to our meetings.
Not OK: It seems like you don’t care about our work.

Don’t read minds, just point out actions that are counter-productive to the team’s success.
Examples include: lateness, absences, incomplete work. It may include: unwillingness to compromise and join the team vision, persistent negative comments, interrupting or other antisocial behavior. This second class of complaints, while real, are harder to communicate and it is very important to document carefully, using exact quotes if possible.

OK: Tuesday, when Jill started to suggest a different kind of validation, you talks over her. She was discouraged, and didn’t want to participate anymore. (observable, and you can ask Jill how it affected her)
Not OK: It seems like you just want to force everyone to do things your way. (mind reading)

Step 1. The CEO should tell the person with whom you have issues with about your concerns. It’s better not to have the dynamic of three to one, it can put a person on defensive. It’s better to have a 1:1 talk.

Kate Rutter and I can coach you on how to have this conversation, or even facilitate it. You can mention that if this behavior continues, you may not be able to continue working together.

2. Give it a couple weeks and see if change happens. If not, come to Kate or I and request to put someone on a PIP. Do not make this decision unilaterally. Kate and I are “HR” in this class, we’ll coach you on how to have this conversation.

3. By now you should have an document of observable actions that the team cannot tolerate.
You will then present this list to the person, with Kate or I there, and ask them if they are open to change. As in life, they can quit and find another team (if no team will take them, that is also a grade drop) or they can commit to growth. Kate and I are there to make sure everyone is treated fairly. Everyone deserves a chance to learn about themselves and grow. Better here than in the workplace, where getting fired can hurt your career.

4. You will have follow-up meetings weekly, to check in on progress. If no change happens over 3 weeks, the team has the right to fire the team member. The team member who has been fired can join another team to try to recover their grade, or work solo to prevent further damage to their grade.

This is a very delicate process, and it’s better to just talk to each other early and often so you can all be your best selves. The PIP is reserved for the most difficult situations where it is hard to get through to a person and help them understand the consequences of their choices. We will be discussing feedback at greater length in another week, but Kate and I are always available sooner — just email us to set up time!

More on PIPs:

The Creative Founder : SpinClass edition [Fall 2019]

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