Managing team conflict

As Agile coaches and Scrum masters we are not always equipped with all the right tools and training for conflict management. You may find yourself learning through baptism by fire. How you respond and the stance is very important and it can make or break your credibility as an Agile coach or Scrum Master. As coaches you will be tasked to mediate and have difficult conversations between team members.

Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a signal that the team members are becoming really invested in the team or trying to drive a change. So try to keep your radars on and learn to read the signals. Getting down to the root cause of the problem can often be difficult and maybe beyond your area of expertise and require intervention and escalation to human resources or senior management.

Look at conflicts as opportunities to realign the team and bring them back to centre. Help them the team mature, become more effective and efficient. If only it was as simple as getting everybody to see the right solution or to agree on one of many outcomes. Be aware there are emotions involved so biased opinions, positions, agendas and sides have unconsciously been form and emotions charged.

Remind yourself these people don’t wake up in the morning and decide their main objective for the day is to be a complete ‘Jerk.’ People don’t naturally wake up and go “I’m going to be a complete d@#k today!”I am sure there are people who would disagree with this. It will be general misunderstandings, miscommunication or a fundamental difference in opinion.

There are a few points I want to cover and things to consider when tackling these scenarios.

1. Set the ground rules

Remind the team members why we are here today. What is expected of them during this session and conversation. Go over the ground rules about respect, transparency, open communication this is not the opportunity to throw mud at each other and hoping it sticks. This is the opportunity to be heard and to co-create a solution to make a way forward.

2. Is it constructive conflict or a dispute?

Put your radars on and try to identify what it is and whether you will require any intervention or escalation. Try to evaluate the situation and using your experience, gut feel, knowledge of the organisation and rapport with the team members.

Tip: Get familiar with the values of the organisation and code of conduct. This will help you identify if team members have breached the code of conduct and values of the organisation.

3. Be Neutral

As a coach it is very important to take a neutral stance and don’t side with anybody. Make sure you keep your radars on to pick up words, what people say and what they mean. You need to deeply listen and this is how you do it in 3 simple steps.

Step 1: Don’t talk

Step 2: Don’t think about talking

Step 3: Go back to rule 1

This will be your most powerful tool in your toolbox this technique will help you unpack deep problems. And, get comfortable and embrace the silence especially if you are going to do 1 on 1’s.

When team members are truly finished talking, you may participate in the conversation. While mediating remember to keep a neutral stance. It is especially important that you separate yourself from your own opinions and points of view otherwise your are going to appear of bias towards someone. Your outcome should be a resolution to keep the team in a healthy state.

4. 1 on 1’s

This is one of the most effective and time consuming method to deeply understand problems. It will isolate individuals from heat and tension of the situation where they can draw strength from other team members to fuel fire. Things can escalate things quick.

5. Separate the emotions

As a coach you will need to view things objectively. You will need to help guide the conversation back if it is off track, ensure there is an outcome and next steps forward.

6. “I” statements

“I” statements are very useful when a disputes is related to behaviours or actions not aligned to how we work as a team. It provides a powerful tool to fully express points of view and put an emotional perspective with it.

Encourage the use of the following recipe:

When (behaviour)

I feel (Individual perception)

and what I will like is (expressed as an outcome rather than behavior)

Acknowledge everyone’s feelings, concerns, fears and what we are going to try. Be clear on what you are going to do to move forward.

Conflict is not all bad…

When you have people working closely together there can be conflicts. Take this as an opportunity for the team to grow. It will be a step closer to their journey to high performance. This is not just a learning opportunity for team but an opportunity for you to build to resilience and grit learning to deal with these difficult conversations.

Be mindful if the “S#%t gets real” you need to escalate or get some expert advice to mediate. I recommend practising the techniques on smaller problems or 1 on 1 coaching so you are comfortable with using them. Remember through deliberate practice we form new habits!