It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As a Scrum Master, I am vulnerable when dealing with a chaotic scenario or a challenging conversation. Many of you may have encountered a situation in which two colleagues are both exceptional individuals but are unable to work together; they tend to focus on pointing fingers rather than dealing with issues and finding the acts or behaviors that may be the main cause of the dispute.
Inspired by Tuckman's stages of group development, I've always thought favored storming, where the team could openly discuss their concerns and challenge one another I just never expected the storming phase to end with a departing stage, where one of the team members would resign and then the team would gradually progress towards norming.
A team is always a mix of diverse personalities, and while some can work together with little friction, some pairings are bound to produce tension even over little issues. One of my teammates had a particularly challenging combination, and I felt trapped in the storm. A cold war was steadily taking shape, and it ultimately erupted in one of the retrospectives.
Lesson 1: It's great to have honest conversations, but venting when the other individual involved in the conflict is in the same room as you, isn't going to help you relax. The venting adds fuel to the fire. But not everyone interprets it negatively; I met a balanced team member who reflected and said, "Oh, I didn't realize my conduct was troubling anyone; thanks for letting me know; I'll make it a point to fix that." The problematic party, on the other hand, took their exchange personally and had some outbursts.
I'm sure many of you who have been in a similar circumstance would judge this situation and propose putting team standards in place to help identify actions or behaviors that the team considers unacceptable, and define common norms or form team agreements around them. The team had come up with team agreements on transparency and open communication.
Though we established the team agreements, I realized that they were quite generic, such as transparency and open communication. Each person had their interpretation of the term. Team agreements must be specific rather than broad.
Lesson 2: Rather than simply mentioning transparency, the team should spell out exactly what an individual is expected to do to remain transparent, for instance:
- Keep the team informed about upcoming vacations and issue calendar invites to ensure that no one misses out
- During vacation, update the support schedule and find a replacement
- Always use the team's Slack channel to communicate
- Add sufficient information to tickets, such as progress, challenges, or roadblocks
Individual team members' expected behaviors and what actions they must take in specific scenarios are defined by team agreements. The team agreement is a living document that must be updated regularly, and the team must be reminded about it at regular intervals.
When should the team revisit the team agreements?
- When individuals are not adhering to the team's set agreements, triggering conflict within the group
- When a new team member is hired, or when the dynamics of the team shift due to promotions or the departure of a team member
- If a new action or habit is discovered that is either generating friction or is good, the team agreement may need to be updated.
How did the retrospective result in the resignation of a team member?
For a few weeks, the storm and the cold war waged on, and tension was visible throughout various team events. As Scrum Master, I opted to raise these concerns and allow the team to determine what to do next.
I chose the template — What? So What? Now What? The activity focuses on the problem (What), identifying the impact (So What), and then helping the team to decide on how to address the situation to reduce its impact and resolve the issue (Now What). I customized the template by adding all of the concerns that the team found difficult to respond to directly. These topics were discussed by a group of team members offline. I also provided the team with the opportunity to add any questions that I may have overlooked at the start of the activity.
Lesson 3: If a forum for sharing feelings is available, some people will express less, a few will do it well, and others will overshare or overexpress. These differences can have an impact on the dialogue. The team should agree on certain meeting or discussion agreements before undertaking such activities. For example, instead of focusing on the individual, attention should be directed at the action or behavior that is generating the problems. Rather than playing blame games, identify expected conduct. A Scrum Master, as a facilitator or moderator of such discussions, should have the courage to end a discussion if it deviates from the agreement. Minimize the amount of hyperactive verbal exchanges by taking cooldown breaks. Ascertain that everyone feels heard and respected. Do not allow anyone to monopolize the stage.
The first few conversations went well, but the temperature in the virtual call was rising and it hit a high point with one of the identified problems. The team observed some venting, long pauses, stern faces and awkward moments. Though we came up with a list of very specific team agreements, we all knew that this frank expression was rude, it cornered and blamed certain individuals, and could have been dealt with in a better way. The retrospective ended with a set of action items, specific team agreements, and a loud bang.
Within the next few days, one of the team members resigned. I was immediately filled with self-doubt. Was the retrospective to blame for the resignation? Did I choose the wrong activity? Was I not bold enough to interrupt the heated discussion? Was it even a good idea to bring up these issues? I soon came to realize that the retrospective may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but wasn’t the reason for everything that happened. If not this time, it might have surfaced during some other conversation or another event, but it would have strained the team further.
Every one of us, in my opinion, has been through this situation and could be directly or indirectly involved in it. It requires a lot of expertise, patience, and confidence to deal with conflicts. Nothing is impossible if you have the right mindset. Some human equations are successful, while others are not. It takes courage to agree to disagree and move on.
A retrospective should not lead to resignation. If done right, it should have the opposite effect.
People join and resign from companies, and it is a natural process. People can sometimes feel bad at work, this is also a fact. But one thing is for sure: if we try to hide and bury our thoughts and feelings, we’re bound to be overcome with anger and frustration, and we only need a trigger to get broken.
Retrospectives are the place to vent before it is too late. As facilitators, our job is to set the right stage, empower people and provide them with the most comfortable environment to say what they think, without blaming, and work as a team to find solutions.
I would love for my readers to share their experiences if they have encountered something similar.
- How did you handle the situation of conflict?
- What could have been done to improve the outcome?
- How does it feel to be the person stuck in the conflict?