Why performance improvement just doesn’t work

Performance Improvement Plans don't work

The manager was sweating hard. My friend distraught. He, a respected professional hauled in for “the performance chat”. HR was there, but beyond useless in what they offered to the process. I was there as the support person.

I can’t count the number of meetings like this I have attended over the years. Sometimes as the HR person, sometimes as the manager, sometimes the support person, once as the person being disciplined (for being inappropriately outspoken!)

Performance improvement plans- they just don’t work

And here’s the thing. The process doesn’t work.

Performance improvement plans, performance management processes, any version thereof. They’re designed to protect the company in the face of legal action. To show that natural justice, due process and fairness has taken place.

That the company did everything they could.

The guff that goes with them speaks to how they are designed to support the employee and help them improve, but the reality is very far from that.

What happens?

The impact on almost every employee I have ever known who has gone through one of these processes is to destroy the trust in the employment relationship. And to almost immediately start getting their Linkedin profile up to date.

It is rare that the employee gives even more to the relationship. And rarer still that the relationship and performance improves to the point that the organisation is once again happy.

Worse, often these discussions come as a complete shock. And often are contradictory in that the person has received other feedback and accolades from the organisation at the same time and often on the same issues as the performance plans seeks to deal with.

Often the person is left with a lingering sense of self doubt long after they’ve left the organisation.

Shouldn’t people be held to account?

Of course..

Accountability is a clear input to engagement.

This is not about letting people have a free reign, with no care for their level and quality of performance.

It is however, about being crystal clear about the expectations of both parties, and importantly keeping both parties to account.

It is about ensuring that those expectations are fair and reasonable.

That stretch targets are acknowledged as such.

And that any mitigating factors are identified and acknowledged.

It isn’t about letting people get away with stuff. Nor that inappropriate behaviour in the workplace isn’t dealt with.. Rightly – there are processes that deal with that.

This is about where an organisation gets itself in a mess, and rather than face up to the systematic issues that have caused the mess, instead points the stick at one person.

It doesn’t work. And it causes undue stress and distress.

Is there a better way?

There has to be a better way.

One where conversations are regular and open. Conversations, that are mutually honest and supportive. Where barriers and issues are actively identified rather than hidden in case they are used against the person. Where feedback is frank and candid and supportive – with a genuine intent to help and support. And where, if things aren’t working, where there’s a value or cultural fit mismatch – that the conversation can be addressed by either party with a view to finding a solution.

There are some organisations who do this really well. But many more who go through the motions with the end point already identified.


  • As leaders, are we clear on what we expect of our employees? Are they clear?
  • If not, can the difference be bridged?
  • How do we talk to our employees about what we expect, about how they’re going and about what they need to succeed?
  • How do we set up the culture so that radical candour is the norm rather than the exception?


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