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


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 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 butt of complaints. When someone passes along anonymous complaints about you, ask these questions to bring the conversation to a constructive place:

May I ask how you feel about this? Is it a concern for you, too?

I would welcome a chance to talk with him. Would you be willing to help us get together to talk?

Remember that, as the Agile coach, you are a model for the behavior that will help the team get to high performance. In this regard, imitation is definitely the highest form of flattery. Use this model and hold fast to the absolute refusal to carry anonymous complaints and see what happens. The best outcome possible is that you hear one team member say to another, "Have you shared your concerns with her directly?"

[1] The intervention path and much of the advice in this article is adapted from the tutelage of Margaret Keip, a Unitarian Universalist Minister who teaches conflict management to church groups. Her models spring from wise guidance she learned from Speed B. Leas, author of many conflict management books, among them Discover Your Conflict Management Style, Alban Institute: 1998.

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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