Helping Agile Teams Tip Towards Greater Emotional Maturity


Teams at a tipping point

Is there a transformational moment within a team when an individual shifts from behaviors that support only individual achievement to those that support team achievement? What observations can we make as leaders about the specific behaviors that help individuals turn towards their team and lean on behaviors that support the team? How can we nudge teams forward until these behaviors gain their own momentum? My experience in setting up agile teams to tackle complex, systemic problems has brought me to focus on the set of behaviors that are both markers and catalysts of emotional maturity. Emotional maturity matters for agile teams because it enables business value. Emotionally mature teams are resilient and innovative in the face of the setbacks and barriers that come along with complex problems.


Digging into behaviors of emotional maturity of a team can provide insights for coach, customer and product owner roles as well as making our time at work more personally meaningful. To experience a deep sense of belonging or a magical moments of breakthrough from within a healthy agile team is to truly understand how the work of teams can be transformational.

Emerging behaviors
Behaviors that emerge from agile teams and that signal their emotional maturity show the gradual merging of a set of individuals into a team entity. The sequence of behaviors that emerge from agile teams with the best acceleration of velocity share a relatively similar pattern. I’ve seen the pattern hold true in teams focused on anything from fixing processes to developing IT solutions. First, moments of humor and independence show up. Then self policing behaviors emerge. Team discussions include diverse points of view with more consistency and depth. Team members start to give feedback, usually first to the process, then to other team members. Team members show greater willingness to ask for help, signal weakness or vulnerability, and take on tasks that are unfamiliar. A sense of mutual support becomes tangible and recognized within the team, increasing the strength of team bonds. At a more advanced level of teaming, conflict within the team becomes useful rather than painful or even destructive. The team starts to recognize, understand and manage different levels of conflict. And the team bounces back from set-backs or dead-ends with resiliency and deeper levels of trust. In fact, when foundational behaviors of emotional maturity are present and supported by agile processes, adversity strengthens the team because of the team’s internal processes for learning and growing as a team entity.

Early flags of team-oriented processing
I have not yet seen an agile team that does not include a least one former grade-school ‘class clown,’ and those of us that step into that role can catalyze early emotional processing within the team. Early hints of humor often show up as gallows humor, tied to challenges of the work at hand. Of course, negative or sarcastic humor can get out of hand and threaten an atmosphere of collegiality and respect – happily most early humor is usually linked to a sense of: ‘we’re all in this together; let’s have a laugh and make the most of it.’

Group self-policing is another early behavior. The best instances of the behavior were gentle nudges to align the team to agreed-upon norms or practices, often helping build integrity around Agile methods. Competent coaching is a key to this self-aware processing. Examples are: “Guys, didn’t we agree to be really brief during the morning stand-up? How about we start the practice of flagging topics that need more discussion outside of stand-up?” Comments like those usually show that Agile mechanics have been internalized and that the team is developing shared accountability to follow those the process. I’ve most often seen self-policing behaviors showing up in early sprints where following-through on Agile mechanics take significant effort (is not yet a habit or is in active conflict with old habits) but before benefits are fully evident. Time pressure and impatient team members can help trigger the emergence of self-policing.

Precursors of acceleration
Just as some self-policing behaviors show signs of team members adopting Agile, the next set of behaviors shows a growing sense of care for team members. Welcoming different perspectives, providing feedback and being comfortable with limited conflict speaks to a dedication to each other that can overcome profound barriers. All three behaviors get modeled by any team with effective Agile coaching,


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