Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

Yesterday, I was put on a month-long performance improvement plan. I have made some mistakes, and let things fall through the cracks. I take responsibility for them, and the plan is mostly centered on proving I can be dependable. I agree that there are things I need to change and get better at, and I am willing to work really hard to prove that to my boss.

I've only had one other job after college, and it was in a TV newsroom. The skills I'm working on/learning are related to following through with each task before moving on to the next one and getting my tasks done completely, even if I don't get everything I need to done each day. In a newsroom, this isn't possible. Getting everything done (even with a few mistakes) is more important than completing whole, finished, and correct tasks over a longer period of time.

Overall, I'm nervous, because I've never been in this situation before. I know what my expectations are for the plan, but I really don't know what else to do. Should I start looking for another job, in case I don't improve enough in the next month? Should I focus all of my attention on getting better, and start a job search only if it doesn't work out? I really think I can improve, but again, I've never been here before and am scared about not being in control of the situation. I don't want to leave my job, both because I've only been there since October and because I want to prove I can do it, move through issues, and really take control and ownership of my assignments.

OK, here's the deal with performance improvement plans (PIPs): They are indeed very often the last thing that happens before you're let go. In theory, if you meet the terms of the plan, you'll preserve your job and be able to move forward, but in practice, by the time you're on one, it's often because things aren't working out and aren't likely to.

To be clear, that doesn't mean that PIPs never end in success. Sometimes they do. But because they so often don't, it's smart to be job-searching meanwhile, because they're so very much the writing on the wall giving you a warning that you might lose your job at the end of the process. (However, don't let your job search interfere with your focus on work. If you have to pick between the two, choose work if that's likely to make the difference between meeting the terms of the PIP and not meeting them.)

Meanwhile, take the PIP very, very literally. If it says that you need to do A, B, and C, you must do A, B, and C to the letter, precisely as described. You can also check in and ask your boss for feedback earlier than the PIP's end point if you think that would help. And showing that you're genuinely concerned and want to improve is important.

Also, have you told your boss what you wrote here about having previously worked in an environment where getting everything done, even with mistakes, was more important than getting everything correct? If not, it might be useful to give her that context, so that she understands that this has been--at least in part--about needing to re-learn work habits that were different somewhere else, and not about a plain old inability to produce error-free work. Don't say it as an excuse, because it's not one, but you could say it as context for why you were having trouble earlier.

Do your best, make it clear you're taking it seriously, and prepare for the worst but hope that you won't need it. Good luck!

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Jan 24, 2017
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