Handling Conflict on Agile Teams: What to Do When a Team Member Complains

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Summary:

You've probably seen it on Agile teams: conflict seething just below the surface. Barely disguised disregard, sidelong glances, rolling eyes, words that halt conversation for an eternal heartbeat while people think, "Was that meant to be a put down? Did she really just say that?"

You've probably seen it on Agile teams: conflict seething just below the surface. Barely disguised disregard, sidelong glances, rolling eyes, words that halt conversation for an eternal heartbeat while people think, "Was that meant to be a put down? Did she really just say that?"

These things are all in the range of normal for an Agile team. They're in the range of normal for any group of people who spend considerable time together and who create shared history together. It happens in neighborhoods, community coffee houses, churches and Agile teams - especially Agile teams - where team members sit arm's distance apart for hours on end every day.

The call to an Agile coach is to help the team see that conflict is normal - and useful - if it remains constructive. Conflict seething just below the surface is clearly not constructive however, and often leaks out around the edges as complaints.

Team members know the Agile coach's job is to remove impediments to work, making the coach a popular target for complainers. Some Agile coaches may have even practiced dealing with this in their Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course. There is a set of scenarios I have seen acted out in CSM courses that goes something like this:

A team member comes to you and says that the architect on the team has such bad body odor that she cannot stand to work near her. With summer coming, she is worried the architect will run everyone out of the team room. As the team's coach, what do you do?

A developer comes to you fuming because Joe, a developer, broke the build - yet again. He is convinced that Joe is sloppy and doesn't care about anyone but himself. He says that the rest of the team is ready to "vote him off the island." As the team's coach, what do you do?

A team member comes to you complaining about the lead tester taking personal calls in the team room. As she talks, it becomes clear that she is really steamed about the loud, personal conversations she has to sit through several times a day. She thinks he is rude and has questionable morals. She wants you to make it stop. As the team's coach, what do you do?

I've actually played out one of these scenarios in real life, to a real team member. It was the one about body odor. I'm not kidding. I went to the odor-offender and told her. It was uncomfortable, awful, and I felt like the lowest of the low as I watched her face crumble before me. But, it was over quickly, was relatively painless (for me) and ended there. She became more self-aware, her odor improved, everyone was happy. The indirect confrontation method worked. And I thought I did what was best for the team. But did I?

I can't think of many other scenarios in which the indirect method would work and one might rightly argue it didn't work in that one either. By carrying the complaint from complainer to offender, I ensured that there would be no complete understanding of the situation from both "sides." In fact, as the intermediary I helped create sides by reinforcing a division in the team. This was probably a minor infraction given the body odor issue, but would be significant in most other situations.

Most complaints are more complicated and feature both parties contributing to the wrongdoing. They are not clear cut - they are situations in which feelings have come to the boiling point, ideas of right and wrong create

User Comments

1 comment
Denning  Coates 's picture

Nicely laid out.  Thanks Lyssa, that was insightful.  

July 28, 2014 - 6:01pm

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