7 things to consider when using a performance improvement plan (PIP)

Coaching an underperforming employee? Here are 7 things to consider if, when, and how to use a performance improvement plan.

It’s always easier to be a good manager when things are going well. But when an employee is struggling – especially someone who shows a lot of promise – what do you do?

The first step is to figure out if the employee knows they’re underperforming (I discuss this at length here.) Then, it’s time to coach an underperforming employee (hopefully) to success. You need a plan of action.

One way to help an employee improve their performance is through what’s classically known as a performance improvement plan – or PIP, for short. Some companies have a formal PIP process in place, with templates and predefined steps, while other companies and managers forgo having any type of PIP at all.

What works best depends on the employee’s particular situation and the company’s cultural environment. For instance: Has this poor performance been chronic, or something more recent? Does your company generally view process as a means to reduce complexity, or are they process-averse?

To get a better sense of if a formal performance improvement plan would work for you and your team, we asked our 1,000+ managers in our online community, The Watercooler, in Know Your Team about their experiences.

Based on their responses, here’s what you should consider when coaching an underperforming employee and using PIPs:

Is it a lever, or a crutch?

Netflix vocally eschews all performance improvement plans. They’ve observed how other companies use it as a crutch to flag poor performance, rather than as a lever to improve performance. Managers will put an employee on a PIP as “proof” to HR that they tried to help someone. Or in more nefarious situations, a manager will use a PIP to usher someone out of the company. Like any process in an organization, performance plans only work if the intention matches the outcome (whether that outcome is intentional or not.) If the ultimate outcome of PIPs are that they’re a convenient “out” for managers – rather than a genuine path for employees to improve – performance plans will be toxic for your company. Empty relics serve no one.

Never make the PIP a surprise.

Any low performance should have been discussed in a previous one-on-one meeting already. Your direct report should not be caught off guard that you’re suggesting a performance plan to them. In larger companies, this is also something that should have surfaced in feedback to HR (be it ad hoc or via your monthly feedback cycle, depending on what your cadence is.)

Let the employee know a PIP is a possibility.

Folks can turn the ship around, before needing a performance improvement plan. Knowing that a PIP might be on the horizon can be a powerful motivator for some. However, given this, be conscious to not frame the possibility as an ultimatum. Instilling fear is not productive in the long-run. Rather, be transparent as possible about the person’s level of performance is and what the potential next steps might be. For instance, during a one-on-one meeting, you could say, “We need your performance to be at [X tangible level], and I want to work with you to improve. I don’t think we’re at the point where we both need a performance improvement plan in place yet. But, I do want to share that could be a potential next step down the line if we don’t improve, together. Right now, I do want to support you to figure out how to make things better. Would you be open to discussing that?”

Consider having others in addition to the employee present for the conversation.

Watercooler members who are part of larger companies recommended the meeting about the PIP involve the employee, the manager, and HR. This is to make sure all relevant parties are on the same page. If you do choose to involve HR, be wary that some find it distracting (if not a bit ominous) to have HR in the room when the PIP is being discussed. At the same time, others prefer to have HR present from the beginning because it helps establish continuity of information. You’ll want to weigh these trade-offs, for your own team, when evaluating whether or not others should be a part of the PIP conversation.

Have an overall consistent flow for the PIP.

Based on what Watercooler members shared, here’s a general outline for how you could set up a PIP in your company:

  1. Meet with the employee to discuss the performance plan. Make it clear ahead of time that this is the purpose of the meeting, so the employee can plan accordingly in advance, themselves.
  2. Clearly define, together, what “success” tangibly looks like, and when it should be achieved by (typically 4 – 6 weeks out). Discuss why this marker of success is important to the team, and how it helps move the team forward. Get on the same page for how a successful outcome will be measured. Agree on the method of measurement.
  3. Develop a plan during the meeting for how to reach success. What might daily or weekly activities look like? Do either of you have suggestions for what should be done different so success is attainable?
  4. Set up 4 – 6 weekly checkpoints. Talk about what “success” for each weekly checkpoint might look like. What will the measurable output be?
  5. During each weekly checkpoint, discuss the progress made to date, based on the metrics you previously agreed to. What’s been going well and not well? How can either of you do things different to make better progress? How well is the employee tracking toward “success,” as was previously defined?
  6. During the last weekly checkpoint, declare success – or decide it is time to part ways. Obviously, one of these conversations is much harder to have than the other. If the employee has fallen short of meeting the successful outcome, have this discussion as directly and respectfully as possible. Here are some tips on letting someone go with grace and dignity.

Draft the plan always with the employee’s input.

This is paramount. An effective performance improvement plan is “we can improve together” and not just “I’m telling you what to change.” Every step of the way, from having the initial discussion about poor performance to defining the weekly check-points, you should be co-creating the PIP, and working together to figure out how to get to the outcome you both want to achieve.

Understand the cultural implications of a PIP.

For some Watercooler members, PIPs work incredibly well for their team because their team thrives on having clear processes and structures in place. However, another Watercooler shared how, because 80% – 90% of employees who were put on a PIP left the company during the PIP period, it culturally made the PIP “a herald of doom.”

Regardless of whether you decide to move forward with a formal performance improvement plan or something more informal – the important piece is that you’re purely focused on helping your employee improve. That’s your purpose as a manager, after all: To create an environment for your team to do their best work. It doesn’t matter if you call it by a three letter acronym (“PIP”) or not. The outcomes are what matter.

Is a CEO is worth working for? 4 questions to ask a prospective boss

If you’re looking to leave your company to work for another, you’ll want to consider this.

Recently, someone asked me for advice about getting a new prospective boss, and potentially leaving one company to go work for another. He was curious what factors he should consider before making the decision.

He’d already vetted the role, the company, and the offer itself — all important aspects to consider. But I told him, in my opinion, the most crucial thing to vet is the CEO.

If you’re about to join a new company, you must figure out:

“Do I believe in the CEO?”

No company is successful with a CEO who can’t communicate, who can’t get everyone on the same page, who can’t hire well, and who can’t chart out a vision.

Personally, I remember interviewing at one of my first job out of college, and I remember it being really hard to tell if a CEO is “good” or not.

Plenty of CEOs sound like they’d be a good CEO. They’re charismatic, they’re articulate — but does sounding like a good CEO really make it true?

After almost four years of researching and observing hundreds of CEOs, I’ve learned to ask these four questions to discern whether or not a CEO is a good CEO:

#1: “When have you had to sugar-coat the truth — or avoid telling the truth — to your team?”

How a CEO answers this question reveals her barometer for integrity. Your CEO might laugh and say, “Oh, all the time,” a little too flippantly — signaling that she intentionally misguides employees habitually. On the other hand, if a CEO is too hesitant to admit anything substantial, that’s a red flag as well. It’s likely she’s holding something back. Ideally you’re looking for a CEO to level with you and admit in a nuanced, considerate way when she’s chosen to not be transparent with the team, and why.

#2: “What do you think is your own greatest leadership blindspot?”

This is a take on the classic, “What do you think your greatest weakness is” question — but with a twist. The word “blindspot” implies that the CEO has a weakness she might often overlook. So her answer to this will reveal her self-awareness. Does she have a hard time giving you a straight answer? Or is it clear that this is something that she’s thought a lot about, self-reflected upon, and perhaps even talked about with peers or an executive coach. If it’s the latter, it signifies that this leader has the humility and self-perceptiveness you’re looking for.

#3: “What does ‘success’ for the company look like to you?”

This may seem like an unassuming question to ask — perhaps it’s one you’ve asked the CEO already. However, we often don’t listen closely enough to the answer. If all the CEO is focused on is “winning” and “making money” and “dominating the competition” in her answer, I can guarantee that’s 100% what the work environment is going to revolve around. On the contrary, if she also talks about creating a sustainable, healthy culture, and making sure people feel fulfilled, challenged and supported in their jobs — you can bet that the work environment is going to reflect that. The answer to this question makes is crystal clear what a CEO’s priorities are.

#4: “What would an employee who’s left the company say it’s like to work for you?”

This may feel like a tough question to ask you prospective CEO — especially if they haven’t hired you yet. But it potentially is the most important question. The answer to it demonstrates how cognizant the CEO is of how they’ve treated employees in the past, and how willing they are to admit if they’d haven’t been the ideal leader. Be wary of CEOs who say only positive things, as it shows their refusal to recognize their shortcomings, or failure to understand how their own leadership behavior may have driven the other person away.

If you’re worried that asking these questions — particularly the last one — might offend your prospective CEO, that in itself is a sign that the CEO might not be who you’d hope for. The best leaders welcome tough questions, and will be impressed by your desire to better understand how they lead.

If anything, asking these questions will make you look better in their eyes. And, it gives you all the information you need to decide if they’re a CEO worth working for.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.

The Anti-Mentor: How a bad boss influences our leadership style

Having a bad boss shapes our leadership style more than we realize – for better and for worse.

Who’s the worst boss you ever had? Your answer to this question matters. It influences your leadership style in more ways than you think.

For myself, I can answer that question, “Who’s the worst boss you ever had?” almost immediately.

He’s someone I’d worked for coming out of college, after I’d started my first company. You’ve likely met a variant of him before: One of those leaders who looks you steadily in the eye, and with complete conviction and charisma, articulates a beautiful vision of the future the two of you could create together.

Back then, I nodded my head, convinced.

He then turned around… and he didn’t follow through on what he’d promised. He played favorites. His mood temperamental, at best. Ask a question, make a suggestion, offer a new idea – and he appeared irritated that you dared to speak up.

He wasn’t a bad person (he was a lovely person, in fact.) But having him as a boss showed me exactly the kind of boss I didn’t want to become. I took his template of leadership and whittled my own – a relief carving in opposition to his.

This worst boss of mine is what some would call an “anti-mentor.” Far from the person who you aspire to be like, they are who you avoid emulating, at all costs.

To this day, my “anti-mentor” influences my actions as a leader. For instance, I go to great lengths to be immaculate with my word. I’ve witnessed firsthand how destructive it is to say one thing and do another, as a leader. I strive to be unabashedly fair and consistent, because I’ve noticed how much instability and low motivation an unpredictable leader injects in a team. And, to this day, I’m highly conscious of creating an environment that encourages people to share divergent opinions. I’d seen what happens when the leader expects honest feedback to come to him – he never hears it.

When I reflect on my own leadership style, I realize that the bad bosses I’ve had influenced me more than any good boss I’ve had. Seeing what you don’t want to be like is more powerful than what you do want to be. The push is greater than the pull.

Psychologist Frank Oser calls this “negative morality” – learning from mistakes is markedly more powerful than learning from successes. However, you don’t necessarily need to experience the mistakes yourself to feel its impact. In the book The Moral Advantage, William Damon explains how the people he interviewed often cited the “anti-mentor” for shaping their values more than any other positive example or role model.

In this sense, an “anti-mentor” is a gift. My experience with my worst boss was a clarifying force. It helped me understand what I valued as a leader and as a person. Resistance shapes you. When know what you’re against, you more firmly know what you’re for.

At the same time, “anti-mentors” have unintended, adverse consequences when you model your leadership style in reaction to them. You can easily – and unknowingly – overcompensate. For example, my worst boss was never sensitive about extenuating life situations of his employees. If someone’s kid was sick, if something tough was going on in life, it was, “Well, that’s too bad. Can you get this done ASAP?” As a result, with my own team, I’m exceptionally generous about the time someone can take off. Sure, that’s good in the right doses… But I think in the past, I’ve been too liberal with it. There are people I’ve worked with who’ve taken advantage of my overly generous tendencies, and left our team worse off.

Most commonly, I talk to many leaders who have a problem being too nice because of their “anti-mentor.” Their former boss was as asshole and they are scarred by that experience. But inadvertently, now as a leader themselves, they lean the other way too far. They can’t bring up hard conversations with their staff. They have difficulty firing people who needed to have been let go months ago.

Whether or not you’re positively or negatively influenced by your “anti-mentor,” the critical thing is to realize that you are influenced by this person, to begin with.

Ask yourself: Who is the worst boss I’ve ever had? Then reflect. In what ways are you consciously or unconsciously reacting to your experience with this person? Are those reactions to this person – your “anti-mentor” – helping your team? Or, are they hurting?

Your worst boss is with you in more ways than you think.

The 3 most effective ways to build trust as a leader

Based on data from 597 people, the best ways to build trust as a leader aren’t what you think they are.

How do you build trust as a leader? The answer seems intuitive enough.

For many of us, we hold company off-sites and run team-building activities. Informal lunches, monthly social get-togethers, and one-on-one meetings are part of how we build trust at work.

We also thank our team publicly and give employee recognition for a job well done. And, we strive to be transparent with company information during all-team meetings.

These are among the most popular ways to build trust because they work… Right?


To my surprise, in our survey we ran this past fall with 597 managers and employees, these three ways to build trust were in fact viewed as the least effective by employees.

Specifically, these were the 3 least effective ways to build trust as a leader:

Company retreats + team-building activities.

Only 1% of managers and employees who responded to the survey said that this was the most effective way to build trust. This is fascinating, given the amount of money and energy many companies spend planning company off-sites and team-building activities.

Thanking your team and giving recognition.

Only 4% of people said that this was the most effective to build trust in a team. While this shouldn’t imply you should never thank your team, it goes to show there’s more to building trust than doling out compliments.

Being transparent with company info.

Only 10% of managers and employees stated that this was the most effective way to build trust in a team. No doubt that transparency is important in a company – if you want your team to be able to make the same decisions as you, they need access to the same information as you. But when it comes to building trust, perhaps it’s not as effective as we’d imagined it to be.

Now, just because these methods are not viewed as “most effective” for building trust at work doesn’t mean you should stop doing these things, all together. Rather, they may accomplish other worthy goals in the organization. (For example, being transparent with company info is helpful for alignment in a team.)

So what is most effective when it comes to building trust?

From our survey, here’s what 597 managers and employees said were the most effective ways to build trust:

#1: Show vulnerability as a leader.

Twenty-eight percent of people said that being vulnerable and admitting your shortcomings as a leader was the most effective way to build trust. For both employees and managers in the survey, they remarked how being vulnerable with your weaknesses and mistakes demonstrated empathy: The more empathetic someone was, the more likely they were to trust them. One person in the survey in particular remarked how their manager “needs to show more empathy,” and that “morally he is probably a good person but there are some times when it’s unclear if he actually has empathy due to challenges expressing it.”

#2: Communicate the intent behind your actions.

Twenty-six percent of people said making your intentions behind your actions clear was the most effective way to build trust. This makes sense, given that intent is such a primary part of the definition of trust, to begin with. Communicating the intent behind your actions means being open about why you’re saying something, and why decisions are made – including your decisions to not act on something. Be opaque about why you’re changing your mind, or fail to express why you’re giving feedback to someone and it can wreck havoc on your work relationship.

#3: Follow through on commitments.

Eighteen percent of employees expressed that simply following through on commitments was the most effective ways to build trust. This seems to be especially powerful given that we found that 48% of employees believed that the company has been all talk and no action on something lately – and 28% of employees said their manager has been all talk and no action. Similarly, 61% of managers believed that their direct reports had been all talk and no action on something lately.

In short, trust is not rapport. Trust is not team-building. It’s not about getting people to like you. And it’s not about getting people to just “feel good” about you or the company.

Trust is your intentions and your behavior. It’s making it clear why you’re doing something, being honest about it, and then following through with it.

You can hold as many company retreats as you’d like… But if you’re not vulnerable during those moments, your team won’t trust you.

You can be congratulatory with your team every week… But if you don’t follow through on your commitments, your words ring hollow.

You can share company financials far and wide… But if you don’t reveal your intentions about what you’ll do with that information, your team will be skeptical of you.

Align what you do with what you say. Your word and your action builds trust. Nothing else does.

PS: If you’re looking for a helpful system to build trust more authentically, you may want to check out Know Your Team – our software to help you become a better leader. In Know Your Team, we give you tools and resources specifically around building trust so you can put much of what I shared here directly into practice. Check it out here.

How transparent should you be as a leader?

Two things I’ve found helpful to consider when trying to decide what to be transparent about with my team – and what to keep to myself.

How transparent should you be as a leader?

This is a question many leaders struggle with — including myself. Do you share financials with the company? Or how about salary? How open should you be about why someone was fired?

From open-book management to making compensation public within the company, the concept of transparency in the workplace is more popular than ever.

Understandably (and rightfully) so. As a concept, transparency makes sense: If you want your team to behave the way that you would behave, they need access to the same information that you have. And, the more transparent you are, the more you’re likely to build trust within your team.

But what about the unintended consequences? Can transparency backfire? Do you inadvertently cause panic in a company when you reveal what the monthly burn rate is? Do you encourage resentment from more junior employees when you reveal how much senior employees in the company are making?

As a leader, how do you decide what to share with the rest of the team and what not to?

A few months ago, I spoke with the insightful Des Traynor, Co-founder of Intercom, on this topic. For Des, deciding how transparent he should be was one of the hardest lessons to learn as a leader. And as a CEO myself, I couldn’t agree more.

In our conversation, Des shared with me two things to consider when deciding how transparent you should be in your company:

Transparency requires context.

“The key thing people forget in transparency is it’s not about opening up the Google Drive and making sure that everyone can read everything,” says Des. “It’s about transparency of context as well.” Many of the CEOs who are a part of our leadership community in Know Your Team, The Watercooler, echo this sentiment as well. One CEO remarked how he had shared revenue numbers once, and “things had gone sideways with individuals who just don’t understand or appreciate all that goes into starting and operating a business.”

In other words, the negative reaction came from the lack of context about the revenue numbers. What that CEO wished he would’ve done was share more context. If you share revenue numbers without context of monthly spend, people start wondering, “Where’s all that money going?” So for example, at my company, we share revenue numbers, within the context of also our profit margin and expenses — so it’s understood how revenue supports our business as a whole, and not just “here’s the pile of money we’re making.”

Transparency is a spectrum.

Transparency isn’t all or nothing — things don’t have to be either completely open or completely a secret. Des emphasizes this, saying, “I think it’s worth having a critical threshold to decide what’s actually good for everyone to know, what’s not a secret but needs context, and what actually genuinely might be a secret because you don’t want everyone panicking about something.” Transparency is a spectrum, and if you indiscriminately just make everything 100 percent public, you could be wasting people’s time, confusing them, or causing them strife. Everyone has a capacity of information, and overloading folks with every detail of what’s happening in marketing, support, design, engineering — it can be too much. As a leader it’s important to ask yourself: In what cases is transparency appropriate and helpful, and in what other cases is it distracting or a burden? Are you being transparent, just for the sake of being transparent, or are you truly trying to help people make better decisions, and feel a greater sense of trust?

At the end of the day, transparency is truly a positive force. When it does backfire or causes fallout, it’s often because a leader hasn’t often taken the time to consider these two things: Transparency requires context, and transparency is a spectrum.

As you think through what you should be transparent about in your company, keep in mind these two things. Hopefully, they’re things you won’t have to learn the hard way.

This article was originally published for Inc.com.

New! The Heartbeat Podcast about leadership and its 31 best management quotes

Listen to our leadership lessons now on iTunes, Spotify, and read the best management quotes from 31 leaders from each episode, so far.

I’ve got some fun news to share: The Heartbeat is now a podcast! You can listen to your favorite leadership lessons during your commute, daily walk, while you’re cleaning your kitchen… well, you get the picture. Anywhere you’d like 🙂

I’m lucky that a big part of my job as CEO of Know Your Team is talking to insightful leaders. So several years ago, I came up with the idea of filming those conversations, just via Skype, to share with everyone else. In each interview, I ask the question: “What’s one thing you wish you would’ve learned earlier as a leader?” The answers have been undoubtably fascinating.

Now, you can listen to all the answers in The Heartbeat with your favorite podcast app (Apple, Google Play, Spotify). Subscribe here.

In the meantime, below is a summary of my favorite quotes on management from each of the last 31 episodes I’ve done… lots of invaluable wisdom, here. Enjoy!

“Don’t worry about most things because most things don’t matter.”

– Jason Fried, CEO and Co-Founder of Basecamp, from Episode 1
Listen to the full episode here.

“Just execute.”

– John Maeda, Global Head of Design & Inclusion at Automattic, from Episode 2.
Listen to the full episode here.

“It’s reframing the question, not as, ‘How do you keep people happy,’ but, ‘How do you keep the right kind of people for your organization happy?’

– Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, from Episode 3
Listen to the full episode here.

“When your job is leading, you’re setting a precedent for acceptable and expected behavior. Which means, every single negative thing you do, every bad behavior you have, you’re admitting that you think that’s acceptable.”

– Des Traynor, Co-founder of Intercom, from Episode 4
Listen to the full episode here.

“Authentic leadership is a practice. You have to consistently exercise that muscle.”

– Halleemah Nash, Chief Partnerships Officer at The Academy Group, from Episode 5
Listen to the full episode here.

“You want to believe that everything can be, “We’ll all figure it out together as a team. It should be this really diplomatic thing.” It should be, but I have found that people need that person to look to, to act as a leader.”

– Joanna Wiebe, Founder of Copy Hackers, from Episode 6
Listen to the full episode here.

“Best intention is bullshit. What matters is outcomes, right, and whether you’re taking actually steps to anticipate those outcomes and mitigate those outcomes the best you can and just think through that whole thing.”

– David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), CTO of Basecamp & Creator of Ruby on Rails, from Episode 7
Listen to the full episode here.

“Don’t be boring. It feels like companies hire people, but in fact people hire people.”

– Amanda Lannert, CEO of Jellyvision, from Episode 8
Listen to the full episode here.

“ I wish I would have hired every single executive a year to two years earlier. I was in my hustle mode, doing it myself, and doing a massive disservice to my team in the process.”

– Wil Reynolds, Founder of SEER Interactive, from Episode 9
Listen to the full episode here.

You don’t want to be the blind leader. You don’t ever want someone following you and not questioning.”

– Sara Sutton Fell, Founder and CEO of FlexJobs, from Episode 10
Listen to the full episode here.

If I ever am busy, I’m failing as a leader because I’m shouldn’t be busy. My job is to run the team well, and me being busy, it’s a fundamentally inefficient state.”

– Michael Lopp, VP Engineering at Slack, from Episode 11
Listen to the full episode here.

I think the number one important lesson to learn is just the importance of self-awareness.”

– Ben Congleton, CEO + Co-founder of Olark, from Episode 12
Listen to the full episode here.

“Disagreements are a central part of interacting with human beings and it’s a central part of doing good work. If you don’t have the skills and the courage to do that, you’re not doing your job, basically.”

– Amy Gallo, Contributing Editor at Harvard Business Review, from Episode 13
Listen to the full episode here.

You realize that what you’re really saying is “I’m the only person in the world who can do this and I’m the best.” And that’s really absurd.”

– Laura Roeder, Founder + CEO of MeetEdgar, from Episode 14
Listen to the full episode here.

“The thing that I’m trying to put into practice now is the idea that the people with the most knowledge is where the authority should go.”

–  Dan Mall, Founder of SuperFriendly + CEO of SuperBooked, from Episode 15
Listen to the full episode here.

“If it is any percentage of your organization, of any size, whether you’re again a ten-person company or a thousand, you got to spend way more time than you think that you do with the team, helping them understand what’s going on.”

– Daniel Houghton, CEO of Lonely Planet, from Episode 16
Listen to the full episode here.

“When it’s about finding your own true north as a leader, it’s the idea that you are continuously learning and exposing yourself to all different kinds of styles. Even if you inherently know that, that’s not the right one for you, to the very least know that it exists.”

– Elena Valentine, CEO of Skill Scout, from Episode 17
Listen to the full episode here.

Everything stems from something. If you don’t know what your issue stems from, then you can never fully resolve it. It’s like psychology, but it’s really business.”

– Steve Larosiliere, President of STOKED, from Episode 18
Listen to the full episode here.

I kind of think about [leadership and management] as English gardening. If you want an English garden most of the work is actually the pruning and the taking care of. It’s not the planting, it’s not the plant selection. It’s this constant pruning. The day that you stop pruning is the day that the garden is full of weeds and overrun.”

– David Cancel, CEO of Drift, from Episode 19

“I wish that I had learned that I didn’t need all the answers. I don’t need all the answers as a leader, and that hiring people that are better than I am at something, and then when a problem comes up looking around the room and saying “I don’t know. What do you think?”

– Rob Walling, Founder of Drip + MicroConf, from Episode 20
Listen to the full episode here.

As you get drawn more and more out, you have to remember: How do you connect again?”

– Katrina Markoff, Founder + CEO of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, from Episode 21
Listen to the full episode here.

“I always say, “Don’t just be good on paper. Be good in real life.””

– Aynn Collins, Director of Talent Strategy at MailChimp, from Episode 22
Listen to the full episode here.

“Values, to me, mean how you conduct yourself and how you conduct your business– so the attributes and the method that you actually execute your vision to the world.”

–  Jordan Buckner, Founder and CEO of TeaSquares, from Episode 23
Listen to the full episode here.

“Am I just being nice? Or am I actually being honest?”

– Hiten Shah, Founder of KISSmetrics, CrazyEgg, FYI and Product Habits, from Episode 24
Listen to the full episode here.

“We have made a huge mistake in the tech industry identifying role models with God complexes, type-A behavior to have all the answers. We have made a huge, human, fundamental, cultural mistake in the tech industry, ’cause that’s not how we are as humans. That’s not actually how we do business. That’s not actually how we succeed in life.”

– Wayne Sutton, Co-founder + CTO of Change Catalyst, from Episode 25
Listen to the full episode here.

“I don’t actually expect you to trust me just because I’m your boss. I need to earn it.”

– Ryan Carson, Founder + CEO of Treehouse. from Episode 26
Listen to the full episode here.

“What I realized is that I should stop myself from doing things I’m good at — which is so counterintuitive — and instead, focus on delegating training and making sure that everybody gets good at doing those things.”

– Peldi Guilizzoni, Founder + CEO of Balsamiq, from Episode 27
Listen to the full episode here.

People talk a lot about building culture, but changing culture is very hard. I think understanding where decision falls and how irreversible it is is a really important tactic for deciding whether and how to delegate or when you need to just make and own that decision.

– Kathryn Minshew, Founder and CEO of The Muse, from Episode 28
Listen to the full episode here.

“Don’t beat yourself up too much when things go wrong, but also don’t take too much credit when things are going right. Because a lot of times there are things that are happening as a leader and as a company that are out of your control.”

– Desiree Vargas Wrigley, Founder + CEO of Pearachute, from Episode 29
Listen to the full episode here.

“I think the most important part, at least for me, is having a mission and then being driven by this mission. It forces you just to learn and adapt and want to improve.”

– Amir Salihefendić, CEO + Founder of Doist, from Episode 30
Listen to the full episode here.

“It’s great to have conflicting advice, because then you have to make your own decision. Then then you have to look within yourself and decide what is the right thing for this company, for the culture, personally for yourself, as well.”

– Joel Gascoigne, CEO + Co-founder of Buffer, from Episode 31
Listen to the full episode here.

How to discuss poor performance with an employee

Managing an underperforming employee is tough. Here’s advice from 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team on how to address poor performance.

It’s time to have “the talk”: The one where you have to figure out how to discuss poor performance with an employee.

This not-so-fun conversation you likely saw coming. After missed deadlines and low quality of work, you may have tried to have it, inquiring about their underperformance, one-off. Perhaps this employee even admitted to you that they had some personal problems affecting their work performance.

But you didn’t address their poor performance, head-on. Now, you need to… Or else they might be sticking around for much longer.

A manager who is a member of The Watercooler – our online community of 1,000+ managers in Know Your Team – expressed how he was facing this exact conundrum. An employee wasn’t performing well, and had divulged he was having some family issues.

This manager wondered: How should he approach this conversation in his next one-on-one meeting? How do you address poor performance with an employee, particularly when it seems they might have external issues influencing them?

Here’s how some of the 1,000+ managers in The Watercooler recommended approaching “the talk” about underperformance with an employee…

Don’t tell a bad performer they’re “a bad performer.”

You’re assigning them a highly loaded label, and this can cause the person to be defensive. Strong castigation doesn’t give any room for a productive conversation to discern the root cause of the bad performance. Rather, describe what behaviors you’ve noticed and the gap in performance, as objectively as possible. Do this without personally tying that person’s identity into their work. Ask, “This is what I noticed. Would you agree, or did you see things differently?” Decrying, “You’re a bad performer” is essentially yelling at the person – and yelling doesn’t make something easier to hear.

Size up the general shape of any external issues.

You’ll want to get a understanding of the “outside of work” issues. You don’t need to pry for details – just see if you can get a sense of the shape of things. Are there issues that could be solved through a more flexible work schedule? (For example, having the person take an afternoon off to handle a situation.) Are there issues that are emotionally taxing on them? (For instance, a sick family member can obviously bear a great toll on a person). In some cases, you might consider offering a short personal leave, so the person can focus on finding stability with their personal situation. If you do this, you’ll want to set expectations about their performance when they return.

Figure out if you have Problem A or Problem B.

One of our Watercooler members, Paul Sanwald, a VP of Engineering at a small fitness startup, shared an excellent framework for thinking about how to approach an underperforming employee…

Figure out which of these is true: (A) The employee knows they haven’t been productive or (B) The employee thinks they’re productivity has been acceptable. As a manager, your job is to figure out which of these two situations you’re in. The first (Problem A) is a problem of everyone understanding the consequences of unacceptable productivity. The second situation (Problem B) is a disagreement on understanding what acceptable level of productivity is.

One of the ways to discern if you have Problem A or B on your hands is to ask simply ask: “How have you been feeling about your performance lately?” Based on this answer, you’ll know which of these problems is true for you.

What to do if you have Problem A: The employee knows they’re underperforming.

If the employee knows they haven’t been performing well, here’s a recommendation of how to structure the conversation:

  1. Recognize the problem: Before meeting, ask the person to reflect on their performance: What’s going well? Not well? Get their perspective, and then offer your own.
  2. Identify the cause: Is the reason for underperformance something you did or didn’t do, as a manager? (Here are some questions to ask to figure that out). Is it situational to the task they were given? Is is systemic to the work environment? Are there mitigating factors you weren’t initially aware of?
  3. Explore possible solutions: Discuss different possible routes to resolve the underlying cause of poor performance. For example, if the person works best with greater context, you as a manager need to be providing more detail and support on the project. However, if you’ve already been doing that consistently, another potential option is for that person to get a different job. “Best outcome” doesn’t always mean just forcing the person to “work harder” and stay at the company. Consider fit, and what is best for you, the other person, and the team.
  4. Outline next steps: You’ll want to plan out concrete next steps to address the underlying cause of the issue. What are the actions both you and the employee will take? By when? Will there be a follow-up conversation to check back in and see if those actions are fulfilled, and how they are going?

What to do if you have Problem B: The employee doesn’t know they’re underperforming.

If an employee doesn’t believe their performance is suffering in any way, Esther Derby, a Watercooler member and well-known organizational consultant, recommends that you consider:

  • Does this person know that their co-workers feel they can’t rely on them? Have they talked to the person, directly, or only complained to you?
  • How do you know that the employee is underperforming? For instance, have you been told that the employee is “slow”? What does slow mean in this case? If the person spends more (perceived) time than other people doing similar work but does so with fewer errors, you might in fact prefer that.
  • Can you articulate the expected level of performance? What specifically does this person need to do to improve?

Don’t delay. As soon as you feel you might need to have “the talk,” the clock countdown starts: Every minute you postpone talking about an employee’s poor performance, the greater likelihood their performance will get even worse. Schedule a one-on-one meeting immediately, if one isn’t already on the books.

Yes, it’s far from fun to have to talk about poor performance with an employee. But you only exacerbate the damaging ramifications on your team by not having the conversation sooner.

The time to have “the talk” is now.

What makes a good leader? Leadership is your product, not your identity.

The minute you stop tying your leadership so closely to your identity, you become a better manager.

Your leadership style is not your identity.

You are not your leadership style. In order to be a good leader, you must internalize this. As much as you might self-identify with being an “empathetic leader” or a “decisive leader”, you’ve got to let these notions go.

This is not an obvious truth because leadership feels inherently personal. The adjectives we use to describe our own leadership style might be the same adjectives we use to describe our own personality or disposition: Calm, patient, deliberate, compassionate, rational…

But the minute we fuse our identity to our leadership, we cling to it – and it blinds us.

I was recently reminded of this when I interviewed Desiree Vargas Wrigley, CEO and founder of Pearachute. She emphasized to me:

“The more you can remove your sense of self-worth from the performance of your business, the better your business and your leadership will be.”

Desiree admitted how, as a leader, it’s easy to cement yourself as “a certain kind of leader” – and you fail to see problems for what they are, because of this.

For example, if you see yourself as a “motivating leader” but an employee isn’t performing up to par, it’s tempting to feel frustrated. You might think to yourself, “I’m doing everything I can over here to be supportive… How can this person be flailing?”

Or, if you consider yourself a “fair leader” yet a team member implies you’re playing favorites, their critique feels like a personal attack. “Wow, I’m a fair leader, and they really think they’re not getting their chunk of the pie?”

In both situations, you view your own leadership as static – it’s the other person who needs to change. You shut the door on collecting more information, evaluating the situation objectively, and the possibility that there’s something better you could be doing.

The closer we tie our sense of self to how we lead, the harder it is to improve.

Instead, can you view your leadership as a product – not an extension of your identity?

With a product, you welcome feedback, you experiment with what works, you see it as a work-in-progress. With a product, you take a step back every now and then to reflect if it is indeed working.

You’re not incredulous if it’s not working for some folks. You’re not personally offended if some people don’t seem to like it. You adjust, test, readjust.

If anything, when leadership is your product, you’re excited for your leadership to evolve, and get better.

Otherwise, your leadership is self-righteous. “This is just the way I am” or “This is just how I’m wired” become the default mode of thinking.

The most important thing your leadership should be doing is serving your team – not your sense of self. Is the way you communicate, make decisions, handle conflict, set direction helping my team get closer to what they all want to make happen?

Leadership is a tool to help your team achieve the outcome it wants. It’s not a precious thing, in itself, that needs to be held on high.

Our leadership isn’t an outward expression of some grand inner personal philosophy, gilded in gold. Our leadership isn’t a foundational core of who we are, set in stone.

The more you relish in self-identifying as a “certain kind of leader,” the less responsive you become to the needs of your team and how you can become better over time.

The more you separate your personal identity from your leadership, the better leader you’ll be.

Building trust in teams: What and why?

How do you build trust in a team? First, let’s understand what trust really is and why it matters.

Who do you trust?

The first people who likely came to mind were your partner, your family, and your friends (hopefully). 

How about your boss? Your coworker? It’s harder to say. 

A 2016 study conducted by Edelman surveyed 33,000 people in 28 countries. From it, they discovered: One in three people don’t trust their employer. And only 24% of employees in this study believe their CEO exhibited highly ethical behavior.

In our own Know Your Team survey this past year of 597 managers and employees, we found that folks were slightly more trustful of one another: About 8% of employees said they rarely or never trust their manager. That’s almost 1 in 10 employees not trusting their manager. 

Why defining trust matters

Whether 1 in 3 employees or 1 in 10 employees don’t trust their managers – both are significant occurrences. Especially given the amount of time we interact with our coworkers, and the projects and outcomes that are on the line, it’s startling.

Are we really spending all this time with people we don’t trust? Should we be doing anything about this?

To answer those questions, we first have to define “trust” clearly. Misconstrue what trust actually is, and you spend time on the wrong things. Get it right, and building trust gets easier.

What trust is NOT:  Likability

We often equate trust with likability. We think, “This is a nice person” or “This is the kind of person I’d want to hang out with on weekends”… So we trust them. 

However, that’s only part of the equation. 

Consider someone in your company you don’t trust. You might like her. She’s affable, genuine and definitely tries her best. But trusting her with a high-profile project? You hesitate – she hasn’t shown the track record you need to feel confident. You don’t give her the big project because, honestly, you just don’t trust her enough.

So you if you want someone to trust you, it’s not enough that they like you. It’s not enough that they think you have good intentions. They’ve got to think you’re capable. They’ve got to think you have what it takes to prove something through. 

You might think someone is a good person – but you don’t trust them to actually get the work done. You need both.

This is an important distinction because many leaders accidentally optimize for likability as a means to build trust. They try to “be friends” with their direct reports, thinking it’ll mean their team will trust them more.

If we can internalize that trust is not likability, it causes us to not fall into the trap of trying to please everyone around us. If we want to build trust, there’s something deeper we have to access.

So then, if trust isn’t likability, what is it?

What trust IS: Intentions + Behavior

In a 1998 paper, Denise M. Rousseau suggested this definition of trust:  “A psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”

In short, trust is two things:  Intentions and Behavior. It’s people’s perception of who you are, and their expectation of what you can do. 

The 4 Cores

Stephen M.R. Covey defines trust in his popular book, “Speed of Trust,” similarly to Rousseau. To Covey, trust is the belief in who the person is, and a belief in their abilities – a person’s “Character” and their “Capabilities.” Covey then further breaks down trust into what he calls “Four Cores”:

  • Integrity – This means being honest, walking the talk, and being congruent with what you believe. You can’t trust someone unless you believe they have integrity. When someone is assessing your integrity, they’re wondering, “Do you have values I align with? Are you a good person?” 
  • Intent – This is your agenda or mission. Your team must trust your intent before they can trust you. A person sizing up your intent will wonder, “Are you thinking about yourself, or others, in this situation? Do you have the short-term, or the long-term in mind?”
  • Capabilities  – This is your talents, attitudes, skills, and knowledge. When someone is determining whether or not to trust you, they’ll consider, “Does this person have the expertise to do this job as well as they say they can?” Based on our survey, we found that both managers and employees most question their each others’ capabilities (26% of employees said this, and 36% of managers said this).
  • Results – This is your track record, your performance. You can’t be trusted unless you’ve shown results in some way that you can be trusted to follow-through. When you ponder about a coworker, “What has this person done that proves I can trust her?” you’re seeking results.

Warmth + Competence

Another related lens for understanding trust is described by organizational experts Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger. They revealed the two elements needed for a leader to be trusted were “Warmth” and “Competence” – with warmth needing to come first. 

According to their research, when you project strength too quickly, people have a harder time trusting you. They explain in Harvard Business Review, “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.”

These perceptions of warmth and competence are powerful: “Insights from the field of psychology show that these two dimensions account for more than 90% of the variance in our positive or negative impressions we form of the people around us.”

How do you show warmth and competence? Cuddy and her research partners detail how warmth can mean positive body language, affirming words, generous actions, and even a smile. Competence can be projected similarly through body language (such as standing up straight), your past track record, and the actions you take going forward.

Like Covey, Cuddy’s research and explanation of the requirements for trust echo Rousseau’s definition of intention + behavior. Trust is all about who people think you are (warmth), and what they think you can do (competence).

Getting this distinction straight helps lay the groundwork for you to build trust in your team. You can now understand why someone might distrust you. Perhaps you haven’t defined your intent clearly enough. Perhaps it’s because of your past behavior. As a result, most importantly, you now can start to think how you can build trust in your team.

The clearer understanding we have of trust and what it really is, the clearer path we have to our teams trusting us more.

The Mindset Shift: How to become a good new manager

Are you a first-time manager? Of all the management advice for new managers, embrace this one, first.

Image for the mindset needed to become a good new manager

Don’t be fooled: Becoming a new manager is deceptively difficult.

No matter how many leadership books you’ve read or conversations you’ve had with mentors – the transition to becoming a manager is precarious.

Talk to any leader, and they’ll affirm this. “I was a terrible manager when I first started,” most will say. Myself included!

This is because the change required to be a good boss isn’t apparent from the outside looking in. You’re not truly aware of the change that’s needed in the role, until you’re actually in the role.

So what change do you need to make as a new manager? From 15,000+ people we’ve surveyed through Know Your Team and thousands of conversations with managers in our online community, the #1 consistent insight folks have shared is this:

Becoming a new manager isn’t merely a change in what you do – it’s a change in how you think.

When you become a manager, your responsibilities change and your daily schedule changes. But it’s your mindset that changes the most.

The biggest change in thinking, as a new manager, is that your best work is not you doing your best work. Your best work is creating an environment for others to do their best work.

You don’t think about, “Am I moving fast enough?” Instead, you now contemplate, “Am I removing obstacles so my team can move fast enough?”

You don’t consider, “Do I know the answer to this?” Instead, you ask yourself, “What am I doing to help my team become experts and find the answer?”

Becoming a good manager starts with how you think, not what you do. Shift your mindset, and the actions follow.

This shift in mindset, while seemingly obvious, is both substantial and hard to internalize. What previously indicated “success” for you as an individual contributor doesn’t indicates success anymore.

No longer do you pat yourself on the back when someone says, “Great work” or “I love what you did here”. As a manager, the small bump of validation happens when someone says: “Now I understand,” “Thank you for listening,” or “I’m excited to work on this.” The small wins change when you’re a manager.

This shift doesn’t happen overnight. We have to disregard the prior experiences of we were rewarded for as an individual contributor. We have to reconfigure our default settings of behavior that got us to where we are now.

But if you can embrace this mindset shift as quickly as possible, your ability to become a good manager exponentially increases.

You don’t have to wait til you’re in the thick of everything, as a manager, to know what you must change.

Now you know: You must change your thinking, first.