Coaching vs Improvement Plan: What Do You Need?

Coaching vs Improvement Plan: What Do You Need?

If you’re a manager — even a very task-focused one — you need to be thinking in part about employee development. How can you make your best employees even better (and advance their careers in the process), and how you can take your worst-performing employees and either help them succeed or find them a way out of your organization?

There are a few different approaches here, and it can be nuanced, of course. You’re talking about people with families, emotions, backstories, etc. There’s no simple answer. For this specific post, though, we’re going to compare the idea of “coaching” with a PIP, or performance improvement plan.

The Benefits of Coaching

Coaching has been shown to be beneficial across a number of contexts, from improving employee performance to helping adolescents move out of poverty. It can be very powerful if done properly, but this leads us to the central issue of coaching, that being…

The Drawbacks of Coaching

Successful coaching is very time-consuming, generally. You need to regularly meet with an employee and go over:

  • Where different projects stand
  • How they’re approaching it
  • Recent outcomes
  • What they want out of work
  • What they want out of their career
  • Their task prioritization
  • What else they’re juggling

It’s about building a relationship and using that as a factor in guiding how work is getting done. Many managers don’t feel they time for this, unfortunately; in one seminal study a few years ago, 60% of managers said they “didn’t have time” to respect their employees. If you don’t have time for respect, you likely don’t have time for coaching. And coaching isn’t a skill set that can be automated. Software suites exist to help with performance management, yes, but nothing is going to replace face-to-face communication and context anytime soon.

Pro Tip: Try this simple 4-step process for more effective coaching.

The Benefits of a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP)

It creates a process — process is very important to many workplaces — for improving the employee on certain timelines, and if these markers and timelines are not met, there’s now a legally-justifiable way to terminate the employee’s contract.

The Drawbacks of a PIP

First and perhaps most important, it makes the employee feel stigmatized and often depressed. Few are going to perform their best in that situation.

The second problem is that, by the time most managers put someone on a PIP, they tend to care less about the “I.” They don’t really want to improve the employee so much as get them out of the building, as Liz Ryan notes here:

They already know they want to get rid of you. I was an SVP of HR for eons and I know that when a manager comes into HR and says, “I need to put someone on probation” or “I need to put someone on a Performance Improvement Plan,” it means that the manager doesn’t like the employee and wants him or her out of the building.

It doesn’t mean the manager “doesn’t like” the employee every time, no, but usually a PIP is a drastic step meaning the manager has to interact with HR all the time (remember, managers are busy). If you’re at this point already, it might be too late.

So What’s the Ideal Mix Here?

First, you need a system for recognizing and contextualizing the different people who report to you — because they are all different. Try something like this simple chart from The Context Of Things:

Employee Coaching Chart (via The Context Of Things)

Second: try an approach that’s more rooted in real conversation, so closer to a coaching model. How about the below?

  • Schedule a 30-minute meeting every two weeks with each direct report you have (within reason; spread them out over a month if it’s a ton of people)
  • Spend the 30 minutes like this: 5 on small talk, 10 on current projects, 10 on future iterations, 5 on close/small talk some more
  • Record some salient points from the meeting and come up with 1-2 action items
  • Use the conversations to move issues forward and get to know each other a little bit better
  • Rinse and repeat

Third: realize the psychological consequences for the employee of moving to a PIP. Try to work with them around the way they like to work before you get there. By the time you get there, it unfortunately may be too late.

Explore your employees’ preferred working & communication styles by running simple team activities. Download The Ultimate Guide To Building A Productive Team to learn more.

An overarching idea, too: what if there’s no such thing as a bad employee? What if it’s just people in the wrong fits, i.e. wrong manager/wrong department/wrong organization? (In the latter case, it may be wise to help them exit.) Some people excel on one team and flounder on others; in the NBA, this happened with Victor Oladipo last season, as Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Grant mention on a podcast from April 2018.

The goal is employee development, but each employee is different — they need to be reached in different ways. But, typically speaking, conversation and context and coaching are the best steps early on.


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