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


divisions, places where people are vulnerable, hurt, and feel unappreciated. These are the more common situations. They call for something better than the coach carrying the complaint from complainer to offender.

The next time someone brings you a complaint, try this three-step intervention path.[1] Ask the complainer:

#1: "Have you shared your concerns and feelings about this with _________?"

If the complainer has not, encourage them to do so. Perhaps a dry-run with you would help get them over the jitters. If they are reluctant or unwilling to do so, move to intervention #2.

#2: "_________ should know of your concerns. Would it help if I go with you?"

If so, plan when and where. Let the complainer know you will be there for moral support, not to be the bearer of the news. If they are still nervous, offer a dry-run with you. If they remain unwilling to express their concern directly, move on to intervention #3.

3#: "May I tell _________ that you have these concerns?"

Whenever possible, get the complainer to address the grievance directly, either alone or with you in tow. Going to intervention #3 puts you in the spotlight as "the runner" of the grievance and prolongs the situation. If intervention #3 is the only option, though, remember this: never carry anonymous complaints. Let the complainer know that you will be revealing who has the complaint.

If you relay an anonymous complaint, you open yourself up to manipulation and you model that talking behind team members' backs is OK. It's not. It wasn't OK in middle school; it's not OK now. Healthy Agile teams live in a world of courage and respect. Expect no less.

If the complainer rejects all three of these options then do something very difficult: cease to consider it a problem. Really. Cease to consider it a problem. To help you do this, remember that as the Agile coach you are in this for the long haul needed to create a high-performance team. You are not in it for the short-term win of temporary team harmony or a problem solved. With this perspective, you can see that not every complaint calls for resolution.

Sometimes, people just need to vent. As the coach, you are the wise and calm one that hears them and allows them to get it out and let it go. This opens the door to healing. Fully listening while they vent is all that is needed.

Other times, people are trying to add you to their gossip chain - not a place you want to be because no gossip is harmless. As the coach, know that someone who wants to gossip doesn't want to resolve the complaint. Hear them fully, give them your observation that they don't seem ready to resolve the complaint and let them know that you are taking no action.

Or, people may be complaining to you so they can enlist you in their war. Don't sign up. You can tell that someone is trying to enlist you when you don't get a firm and positive response to this question, "Are you ready to resolve this without blaming?"

In all three cases, the complainer either doesn't want or is not ready to resolve the situation. So, leave it. By listening and offering your honorable help, you have already done what was needed.

Addressing complaints above-board is uncomfortable. No one likes confrontation, especially when they can't get someone else to do it for them. When you handle complaints in the open you will stir things up. So much so, that you may find you become the

User Comments

1 comment
Denning  Coates 's picture

Nicely laid out.  Thanks Lyssa, that was insightful.  

July 28, 2014 - 6:01pm

About the author

Lyssa Adkins's picture Lyssa Adkins

Since 2004 Lyssa Adkins has taught Scrum to hundreds of students, coached many agile teams, and served as master coach to many apprentice coaches. In both one-on-one settings and small groups, she enjoys a front-row seat as remarkable agile coaches emerge and go on to entice the very best from the teams they help. Prior to agile, Lyssa had more than fifteen years of expertise leading project teams and groups of project managers, yet nothing prepared her for the power of agile done simply and well. Lyssa authored Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition.

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