On being the employee who “needs improvement”

Reading Coraline’s post on a year at Github inspires a lot of feelings: feelings on behalf of a friend; feelings about culture; feelings about how organization structure always wins out over intent.

But it also brings up some much more personal feelings.

Once upon a time I had this job at an extremely small company. It was going along swimmingly, I thought. Until the day maybe half a year in when my bosses called me into a meeting to tell me that I had not been performing satisfactorily.

It was a remote job with a fair amount of autonomy (which was one of the original selling points for me), and I had been taking advantage of the freedom to prioritize family needs when they came up. To the degree that sometimes my bosses were left hanging, waiting for a day or more on my work.

Depending on your point of view, this was either “healthy priorities” or “behaving like a prima donna” (my words, not theirs). Whatever your perspective, it became clear that their expectations of my role did not match my expectations.

They proposed a program of weekly reviews of my performance. I felt really guilty that I had let them down, and I didn’t feel like I was in a good place to be seeking a new job, so I agreed. For the rest of my time there, until the company ultimately folded, I met with my bosses every week so they could tell me if I’d been doing a good enough job.

It was the most humiliating experience of my career. (I realize if this is the most humiliating thing I’ve had to deal, this puts me in a fairly privileged category.) It didn’t help, from my perspective, that I was having my performance reviewed by two guys who were younger than me, child-free, and who had less industry experience than myself.

By the end, they were quite happy with my work. But the damage was done. Even if the company hadn’t folded, I would never have felt comfortable there again. There was no longer a sense of working with mutual respect for each other. I was the misbehaving resource who had to be brought into line. To this day, I can’t run across one of my old bosses online without feeling a little twinge of pain.

From my biased perspective, it is difficult to see how these “personal improvement programs” for a disappointing employee can ever be a constructive force. At best they seem misguided. At worst they appear to be a cynical HR ploy to save face before terminating an employee.

Whatever stresses already existed in the employee’s life, they are only going to be multiplied by the fact that their bosses are literally standing in judgement over them on a weekly basis. Surely most people in tech are familiar by now with all the research showing that threats are the opposite of motivational. Threaten a creative professional, you get shitty creative solutions.

In the framework of a weekly performance review it is far too easy—inevitable even—for deeply personal conflicts to be reframed as “objective truth” about the employee’s abilities and worth.

Are the employee’s own needs—whether for resources, support, affirmation, autonomy, purpose, camaraderie, or something else—not being met? These possibilities get lost in a process that is focused on “bringing the employee’s performance up to an acceptable level”.

Maybe they are simply a poor fit for the job they are doing now. Jobs change, people evolve, and sometimes people get the wrong impression about a job from the get-go. In cases like this, the “personal improvement process” functions as a final insult: a way to plant the idea that it really was the employee’s fault, somehow.

(Don’t even get me started on yearly performance reviews. I don’t have time to write about what a useless abomination they are.)

My takeaway from pondering this today is pretty straightforward:

Talk to your people. Don’t wait. Do it now, and never stop. If they are meeting expectations, thank them regularly. If they aren’t meeting your needs or the needs of others in the company, tell them now. Don’t wait until you find yourself identifying “patterns”.

Be specific about specific incidents, be open about your feelings, and don’t fall back on the impersonal language of “we” or “the company”: “When you were missing from Slack all day yesterday, I felt concerned and also frustrated. My need for confidence went unmet, because I didn’t know the status of ticket #5432 and couldn’t tell my boss when it would be fixed. Can you give me a heads-up the next time you will be unavailable?”

Find out early if the employee’s current circumstances or work style are incompatible with the job they are doing. For instance, if they are feeling the need for frequent, short-notice mental health days and they are on a project with a need for fast, reliable feedback, either move them or let them go. If you can identify an incompatibility like this early enough, it doesn’t even have to be rancorous. Incompatibility happens. Nobody needs to feel like a failure over it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some contractors to thank for a job well done.


  1. Good post. One idea I learned from Gerry Weinberg years ago is this. Talk about your feelings, yes. But then talk about how you feel about feeling that way. In other words, “I am upset that you were late in submitting your patch and that it was. buggy. I feel bad about having to say that because I know you’re trying really hard and this will be upsetting news to you but I feel we have to talk about it”.

    1. I recently read the book Nonviolent Communication, and it has given me some food for thought about this kind of thing. Particularly to examine the true needs underlying anger.

      As a manager, am I actually upset (another word for angry) about a buggy patch? The truth inside me is that I have a need to take pride in my work, to keep my word about delivering functionality, and to have the respect of the client. The late, buggy patch caused those needs to go unmet or made me think they would go unmet, and that scared me.

  2. This is 100% right.

    Like you, I’ve been on both sides of this and struggled with how to be a better manager — and it’s all about honest and forthright communication.

    The only I’d add is that, when you do have to give an employee a wakeup call, or even threaten to fire them if work doesn’t improve, the best way to do it is to say: “why are these circumstances not working for you? We know you’re capable of better work, how do we get there?”

    Put the onus on the employee to define the circumstances under which they can do great work, but hold the line on expecting great work. If the work doesn’t get there, then the conservation becomes : “is this a job where you can do your best work and achieve your potential?”

  3. I don’t think yearly performance are “useless abomination”

    Yearly performance reviews helps me to project myself in the future, see what i can improve and allow me to have a raise.

    But in the meanwhile, they don’t wait if they have something say (thank me, tell me something is wrong etc…)

  4. No one that does there job is scared of reviews. Anyone that is not a child can see that autonomy is bad and accountability is good. Grow up.

    1. You sound like a micromanager that would rather hold a whip to your slaves than to treat people like working professionals. “Autonomy is bad”? Grow up.

    2. You’re assuming absolute truth and competent managers. I have had more than one manager lie about me outright to save his/her own hide. I had one fabricate stories about bugs that didn’t exist (and with Jira and source control, it’s very easy to prove) as justification for his bad release. I have another at my current job, who I don’t work with directly, but who likes to blame everyone else for his missed deadlines. In all cases, the truth is on my side. I have supporting evidence from Jira about the bugs and we can review the git history to confirm the bug never existed. I have a large paper trail that my feature was delivered on time and without the bugs they claim. Every other manager will back me up and defend my work over this person’s.

      That said, put yourself in the shoes of the director hearing from one team that you’re letting them down and from 3 other teams that it’s all a lie. Even if you know the guy is lying, you have to investigate…and how motivated is your director to get to the bottom of this?

      If your decision makers are lazy…and most of them are, it’s easier just to just assume the plaintiff and defendant (so to speak) are both a little wrong, compromise down the middle, and stop thinking about it. Eventually they realize the individual lying was toxic and let them go or marginalize them, but that usually takes years.

      The point is that if someone accuses you of something that is completely false, your company’s perception of you diminishes. Your name is never fully cleared. When comparing 2 individuals who are completely equal, but one has accusations made against them and the other one doesn’t, which do you prefer? If finding out the accusations are false, do you REALLY view both individuals as equal? Wouldn’t you slightly prefer the individual with no baseless accusations made against them, all things being equal?

      Performance reviews are only as valid as those making them. Managers are notoriously dishonest and tend to be really awful at screening out other bad managers. I’ve seen many places go from great to toxic with just a few hires. A lot of toxic and psychologically damaged individuals are able to look sane for the duration of a job interview. Also, big companies are very poor at checking references or giving them out. If someone worked at a big company, they won’t give an honest reference and the screeners at big companies are never looking for behavioral issues. I have never heard of job offer being rescinded based on references indicating they are a bad fit if a big company is involved.

      I am a good engineer with a good track record and have a 20 year history of doing consistently well and being a top performer. 95% of my reviews are glowing and 5% are the polar opposite. I never get mediocre or mildly-positive, or mildly-negative reviews…a few ragingly angry ones every few years with a lot of crazy, baseless accusations from some toxic individuals and the rest range from very positive to extremely positive.

      So yeah, I am very nervous of reviews. We give unqualified people with no training and no understanding of how to evaluate an individual fairly or intelligently and take their subjective opinions as the absolute truth and don’t hold them accountable in any way if they lie, mislead, or just are sloppy with their reviews. I left my last job because they hired a new guy who lied, egregiously, on my review to save his hide. My current job just hired a similar manager (who manages a different team) who spread lies and rumors to hide his team’s failings.

      I am very nervous about my next review because it’s my manager’s word against a pathological liar’s. I have to put faith in my director, who hired to toxic manager, to mediate and see through the lies and evaluate fairly. I don’t have full confidence I will get a fair or accurate review this quarter.

    3. Bull – autonomy is good – the most second most awesome report is the fire and forget report – the most awesome report is the report with their own highly developed sense of target selection. My job is a manager is to fuse my team into a whole, to facilitate them so they aren’t blindsided or forced to operate inefficiently. I can see the authors point, as a manager I am the one with the hand on the tiller, it’s a day by day process of fine adjustment – if I’m meeting with someone on a very regular basis for the reasons described, this is just a documentation exercise for HR, it’s already godawful inefficient.
      I can promise you a team run that way will munch up anything other than another team run that way without breaking a sweat or emitting a burp. An hour later they’ll be complaining they’re bored 🙂

    4. Autonomy’s the #1 predictor of job satisfaction and retention. Hopefully you appreciate that before your company loses all its talent.

  5. That’s a whole lot of feelings there. Whether there’s faltering communication or not in the company culture, it’s worth underlining that employees are still not paid to be emotional. Not a little emotional; certainly not overly emotional. Your emotions are never a reason to maintain salary despite poor performance.

  6. Thank you. I am a novice at being a manager and I have an employee who I now need to meet with regularly to closely monitor their progress. I think I will change the way I phrase things based on your description of the experience.

  7. Many employees would be ecstatic to have 30 minutes a week with 100% focus with their supervisor on roadblocks, issues, and needs that are preventing them from being as successful as they could be. If this process is effective, it will focus on clearing those items that are limiting performance, with specific actions for both the employee and the manager.

    If it’s ineffective, it will be yet another waste of time for all involved.

    I’ve seen plenty of employees come out of “performance improvement” with real improvement. I’ve seen managers mis-handle it and employees blow it off as yet another waste of time, and that rarely ends well.

  8. I empathize with you! Telling someone “you aren’t doing well” is a dangerous conversation to have and it is so unhealthy.

    Your managers clearly wanted more! But they were wrong in their judgment. Managers should inspire employees to work at a higher level with good incentives that motivate THEM, everyone is different. Understanding why the bar has changed: long term goals, milestones, culture, etc is just as important as understanding your employees’ goals. It’s a crucial aspect of being a successful leader. It seems like the company was tanking, they knew it, and they were doing everything they could to stop it.

    A timeless read on the matter – How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

    I’m sorry for the judgment they passed on you, but I have confidence that you will be successful in your job hunt! Best of luck!

  9. If an employee is surprised by a negative performance review, the manager deserves a negative performance review.

  10. (I apologise in advance if my intent to support is not carried through in the perceived tone)

    There are a few things to unpack, and I’m just going to leave most of them packed in the interests of time.
    An important one, however, is the tight ball around the shame that comes from being in a situation where you thought everything was fine but others were simply talking behind your back.

    In my opinion, if a manager or colleague ever finds themselves saying “[you’ve been] behaving like a prima donna” as the first conversation about behaviour, they’ve already failed to be effective. This is the kind of approach that comes from a history of sweeping things under the rug instead of having uncomfortable conversations. Doing this poisons the entire workplace as no-one can be sure whether there are other, just as hurtful, conversations going on about them behind any of the closed doors.

    So, let’s put that cause for hurt on the table, and to the side.

    In our reactions to that, we need to unpack a little further and call in some other terms.

    Entity vs incremental theories of intelligence:
    As I was most recently reminded in Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning, there are two ways to see ourselves in our learning journeys. Josh Waitzkin phrases this much better than I can, so I quote:
    “Entity theorists tend to have been told that they did well when they have succeeded, and that they weren’t good at something when they have failed. So a kid aces a math test, comes home, and [is praised], then next week Johnny fails an English test and hears ‘What’s wrong with you?…’ or ‘Your mommy never liked reading either – obviously it’s not your thing’ So the boy figures he’s good at math and bad at English, and what’s more he links success and failure to ingrained ability.
    Learning theorists, on the other hand, are given feedback that is more process-oriented. After doing well on an English essay, a little girl might be congratulated by her teacher with ‘Wow, great job Julie! You’re really becoming a wonderful writer! Keep up the good work!” and if she does badly on a math test her teacher might write “Study a little harder for the next one and you’ll go great!”… So Julie learns to associate effort with success and feels that she can become good at anything with some hard work. She also feels as though she is on a journey of learning and her teacher is a friendly assistant in her growth.” (Excerpt from the book)

    Now, how this ties in is that the article seems to come from someone who has an entity mindset and therefore attaches feelings of self-worth to job performance, so that when the performance was put in question, so was your feeling of self-worth…

    And honestly, I get that. Not only are many parents implanting this idea when we do well and when we fail, but so are (at least in my experience) the majority of teachers.

    And, unfortunately, many bosses with this idea judge employees as “good” or “not good”, with improvement programs and regular meetings that are ‘cynical HR ploy(s) to save face before terminating an employee’, because if the management doesn’t believe an employee is capable of change, then any outward appearance otherwise is a lie.
    I’d even go so far as to say that a person in authority who attempts to ‘literally [stand] in judgement over [a subordinate]’ in order to get results is being lazy (by not taking the time to understand how the employee could actually be improved) and wasting everyone’s time just to satisfy their own ego.

    Entity approach is also why it can be uncomfortable as an employee to have a ‘student’ mindset: if value is tied to innate ability, then having someone say your ability needs work is painful.

    However; If we flip this to having the incremental approach ingrained in both the management and the employees: improvement plans, mentoring, and coaching make a lot more sense.
    And, if I’ve written this correctly, the question of how improvement programs in the workplace ‘can ever be a constructive force’ will answer itself in an aha moment.

    P.s. The cynical among us will dismiss the idea that there can actually be a workplace who’s management and employees all have deeply ingrained incremental dynamics, saying that it’s fantasy or unsustainable, but I assure you, this cynicism is based on your own (understandable) experience being hurt and not on unilateral truth. There are companies out there, and you don’t hear about them because the people involved know how valuable this kind of environment is, and they protect it by not drawing attention.

  11. In tech I can never stress this enough. Change jobs. Every 3 years maximum. I’ve doubled my pay in a 4 year span. Could have been more switching more often. By the time the 4th year rolls around the focus is often changed across the entire industry. And at the first sign of trouble where you arent the winner, start shoring things up, walk a straight line and start looking. Never a better time to look for work than while you still have it. The amount of leverage is just spectacular. I just came off of a bidding war and there is no better feeling than being on the winning side of one of those. But if you dont change jobs, it can never happen.

  12. I too was in a similar situation once. I ended up leaving the company partly because I felt so embarrassed about what had happened. (but there were other issues there, believe me)

    My current employer is fantastic, and one of the things they do are regular 1:1 meetings every 2 weeks between managers and their employees. The goal of these 1:1s are to discuss big picture issues regarding your career. And if you did something poorly, you will know about it in 2 weeks at the absolute most so that a course correction can be earlier rather than later. This kind of rapid feedback is really useful, and has been great for both managers and employees setting their expectations in their respective roles.

  13. All PIPs are your 30 day notice. Get that through your head. Either you’re a bad employee orn your boss is a bad boss either way it’s time to leave. And let me repeat ALL PIPs are your 30 notice.

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