Polygraph vs. Agile

After the jogging session with my wife today, we stopped at the nice spot near the lake for a freshly squeezed orange juice to regain some energy. The inevitable routine is to check the app on my iPhone how running went. Not particularly well today. But the weather was perfect for a workout.

Lie-Detector-TestTaking the moments of muscle relax, I grabbed the newspapers (so unusual act in the era of new mobile technology). Skimming through the pages, I stopped at the article writing about the company that was performing the polygraph testing (a lie detector) on its employees. The purpose of the testing was to check the employees’ loyalty and how much  are they responsible in handling the company’s properties. The story happens in Croatia and the whole article can be found here.

After the first shock (yeah, I was deeply surprised), I tried to analyse the leadership “performance” in this case and evaluate it with the values we promote in the agile community.

Starting with LEGAL law – I surfed the net to find some sources. In some countries employer use of lie detector tests is limited by the Employee Polygraph Protection Act. It seems – not in this case.

TRUST – more than obvious, trust was not built between the management and workers. And, to my understanding with a number of assumptions I could unfold, there is a strong CULTURE of control – typical for Taylorism in the beginning of the 20th century where high level of managerial control over employee work practices was existed. The command and control culture (see the post about culture) is usually leftover from manufacturing practices in the last century and inability of management to learn and consequently to engage and motivate people.

TRANSPARENCY – if there is a need to check and control employees on polygraph, it means that the whole system is obscure, where information need to be extracted and verified in order to make decisions on a higher level. It further means, that there is a lack of transparency and obviousness which is a prerequisite for every successful and efficient process. Even further, it means that the HIRING process in the company is inconsistent, non-existing or wrong. Why would you hire incompetent people or people you don’t trust?

So, the whole GOVERNANCE is suffering because of the bunch of wasteful management activities being focused on tracking people, instead of creating the environment of visual management. The good example of visual management origins from the concept of JIDOKA – which is sometimes called autonomation, i.e. automation with human touch/intelligence. It gives machines the ability to distinguish good parts from bad autonomously, without being monitored by human. This eliminates the need for people to continuously watch machines. The same principle is valid for the relationship between management and employees. According to Daniel Pink and his great book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us“, the things that creates MOTIVATION are purpose, autonomy, mastery. In this case, it seems that it was easier for management to INVEST a couple of thousand bucks into the polygraph machine, rather than build the high performing environment highlighting the real purpose, educating people and giving them empowerment to perform. It’s an investment shortcut… hm!

The management should go to the polygraph test in this case, to check whether they care for the best company’s properties – people.  No polygraph is needed to detect the lack of contemporary management practices and basics of human psychology to lead 21st century workplace.

Here is the illustration showing distinction between management and leadership:

Managers Leaders fire

Performance Management – Effective Tool to Kill Motivation

Individual Performance Management, or annual appraisals, or bonus based performance, or other similar names, are the Human Resources’ practice that, in a nutshell, evaluates employees’ individual performance, based on the annual goals set at the start of the year.

Each employee is given a grade/mark to carry for some time.


The practice, actually a whole process, focuses on individuals, having the feedback part as the essence of the process. Traditionally, once or twice per year, the managers collect feedback for each employee from his/her colleagues and then compile it. Frequently, the catch is that such feedback is painted with a predefined, so called, Gauss/bell-shaped curve, which represents a statistical distribution of grades/performances. The overall grades for employees are supposed to follow the pattern of the predefined distribution. This implies that the majority of people’s performances should gather around the mid values. It is like we send a message – ‘Perform in accordance with this curve, which tells that majority of us is mediocre?’

Perhaps this interpretation sounds like exaggerating or tendentious, but this is how people, to my experience, receive the message and in the end how it affects their motivation.

Here is the statement from frequently quoted agile guru – Mary Poppendieck:

“If you give a mediocre rating to a high performer, you will make them a mediocre performer. If you give high ratings to mediocre performers, you will continue to have mediocre performers.”

Aubrey C. Daniels (considered as a father of performance management) continues:

“Apart from documentation for legal purposes, the annual performance appraisal is a waste of time.”

The feedback that is immediate, related, direct and fair is important and wanted. Therefore, the annual feedback sessions do not justify the above mentioned attributes, and make a very little or no difference at all, to the change in one’s behavior. If the feedback is given once a year (which is considered very rare), it must also be comprehensive, where both positive and negative feeds are combined.

Sandwich As a manager, I was taught that feedback is like a sandwich: a slice of positive, then a slice of negative and then finish with a positive. However, Aubrey C. Daniels in his research further says that, when combining positive and negative feedbacks, the negative one largely diminishes the positive one. So, we were chewing on bad tasting sandwiches for a long time.


The culture of receiving an evaluation by those we report to, and giving evaluation for those we are accountable for, is so infiltrated into our minds (started with our educational system) that we feel lost without it. We feel without control and without legal instruments to judge. Hence, we keep preserving the power and decision making at the management level, thus killing the honest relationship. The sad part is that we created it mainly because of low performing individuals – people that due to some subjective or objective reasons do not perform in accordance to expectations. Is it worth (smart) to impose a heavy and demotivating process upon everyone in the organization because of the small number of underperforming people?

Another ‘tiny’ aspect to include in this story is the cost. We invest into the system that tracks the individual performance. The system is supposed to help managers to track. Think about the word ‘track’ for a moment! It means that we are after that something, behind. It’s a pretty good description of what the police do. They investigate and track criminals. However, the police are much more advanced in this thinking – they usually don’t track the good guys.




The leaders lead the people to perform; otherwise they don’t lead. So, how can they lead by looking at their employees back? Falling behind is waste, and waste costs. Defining the how-to-track process, building tools and maintaining them, having formal interviews, executing formal talks, policing people – cost money, time and resources. However, the biggest damage of all is – demotivation. If the system demotivates a single person – it needs improvements!

We need a change from evaluating people by their manager, towards a feedback shared among the team members. Who is better to give a feedback than the colleagues working with you on a daily basis? We should get rid of the annual appraisal harmful routine.