Performance Improvement Plan. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Who amongst us doesn’t want our performance to improve?
In my experience, this is less about a plan, and more often about a censure. Someone(s) in your organization want you to improve your performance, and hope that by telling you so, you will improve. It might be about clinical skills, but more often it’s about attitude, complaining, or “being toxic.”
Now I don’t want to suggest that these things might not be a problem. I did a recent podcast all about how easy it is to become toxic (listen here) in your workplace when you are drowning in your responsibilities. The behaviors do tend to cause problems. But the real underlying issue is usually more about how you are feeling, which relates to how you are thinking about what is going on at work.
People who come to me on a PIP usually have gotten in trouble for being deemed toxic in some respect. And all those people have shared with me how understaffing, overbooked schedules and/or the performance of other staff have affected their day-to-day work for the worse, leading to exhaustion and frustration. And as they have tried to problem-solve, usually with no resources from their employers, their actions were viewed as negative, inappropriate, or hostile. The goal, it seems, from managers are to silence and censure. Not to address the problems themselves.
And the plans? Sometimes a weekly meeting with a manager. Sometimes a requirement to “get help,” from a coach or a therapist. Boxes to check, with unclear expectations of outcomes.
I’m going to set aside my thoughts on the systems-side of things. I think there are so many opportunities for change there that it would exceed my website’s page limits. What I am more interested in is talking about how this could actually play out for you if you find yourself in a PIP.
First, allow your feelings. Most Physicians are so shame-averse and used to hustling to appear perfect that the experience of being called out can be intensely painful. That pain may be masked in cynicism, anger, indignation and the like, but underlying this is usually guilt (“I did something bad”) or shame (“I am bad”), sadness (“why aren’t my needs important?”) and/or grief (“I miss how I used to like my work”). Let the underlying feelings come out, and treat them with tenderness, as you would do for a friend who was suffering.
Next, decide what YOU want. Again, in most PIP situations, the professional themselves has not been feeling good at work, struggling with usually multiple challenges that make it nearly impossible to take care of patients how they would like too. What do YOU want? Pull out a piece of paper and start free-writing all of the things that are making it hard right now, all the things you want and wish for your day-to-day, your career at large, how you want to do your job. Just empty your brain onto the page.
And then take some deep breaths and look at what you wrote. What are the themes? Where are you in resistance to the reality of your situation (for example, you might feel like you need more help, but your clinic is constantly understaffed. You might be resisting the reality that your clinic is constantly understaffed, because it “shouldn’t be.” But it is.)? What are you in control of, and what are you not in control of?
This exercise can help you to clarify what you need for your plan. Whatever your work has handed you as your PIP, the reality for most is that they aren’t truly capable of helping you. Managers aren’t trained (or staffed) to do performance improvement work. You don’t trust them, and thus can’t be open to what they have to say (I see you, cynicism!). But that doesn’t mean that you can’t actually develop your own plan. It might involve therapy, coaching or time off (FMLA?). It might involve letting go of perfectionism and developing “good enough” muscles that give you more freedom to care for yourself. It might be setting boundaries for yourself that allow you more rest and bandwidth. Your own plan to feel better.
And when you feel better, others will see this in your actions.
Your performance will have actually improved.
Not just checking the boxes.