Sunday, August 23, 2009

Role of Scrum Master - Dealing with Conflict Avoidance Teams

Have you come across teams where only a few speak and the rest listen ?

Have you seen any of your team members not sharing their thoughts or participating well during Scrum meetings, retrospectives or other activities ?

Have you come across any team where there is no conflict ?

Silent Teams
The teams where you don't see conflict, I would call them as "Silent teams" for the sake of this article are silent in speech, but not really silent in their mind. The people in this teams are like any other people but all their questions, frustrations, arguments everything is going only in their mind. They never speak up or discuss things in front of a group, especially if their ideas conflict with others. But there are chances that they go and share their frustrations with some one closer to them in the team during the cafe breaks or with any other close friend.

Why does this happen ?
According to Conflict Avoidance hurts Business... Individuals stay silent because....

  • We are afraid others won’t like us if we speak up
  • We fear the other person may say something worse about us
  • We wait until we’re really angry and fear loss of our tempers
  • We tried it before and things escalated or nothing changed
  • We lack the skills and confidence needed to resolve conflict
Basically our identity getting hurt plays a key role here.

According to Ester Derby,

Groups that avoid conflict won't be able to face tough issues or handle the creative conflict that generates new ideas.

It has also been found that culture in certain Asian countries like Japan, China, Korea, India,etc have Conflict Avoidance Culture . People who are in these countries are ready to keep silent during conflicts so that it does not hurt the other person or as Craig says they remain silent to create "Social Stability". Scrum Masters especially from these countries need to be conscious of and ensure that conflicts are identified, brought out in open and resolved. The team should be taught how to resolve them among themselves and such teams tend to become self organizing much faster as compared to the conflict avoidance teams.

A Case study
Here is a case study in which the team conflict avoidance lead to drop in productivity. ..
An onsite customer was very brutal with the offshore development team members. He used to pick every day one of the team members and used to shout at them. Every day the conference call with the onsite customer used to be like attending a court where in, each team member was supposed to defend their work and explain what they did every hour of the day. The communication with the customer had always been one way, no discussions were encouraged. Even though every one in the team were fed up with the customer, no one had the courage to speak up and confront him. Every day after the call, the team used to wait until the customer drops off and then used to talk behind him. Over a period of time the frustrations and stress lead to a huge drop in the productivity of the team.

Does this sound familiar to you ?

Situations like these are all too common in organizations. As per Conflicts and Trust,

Fear of what might happen if conflict were confronted causes otherwise proactive people to hesitate, and the cost of this hesitation is significant.
Consider the cost of all those developers as their performance is dropping. The unresolved conflicts keep accumulating in people's mind and takes a huge hit on performance.

It is very important for the Scrum master to observe and understand the team dynamics. Craig Larman recommends Scrum masters to ask questions like

  • Are members avoiding discussion ?,
  • Is something hidden ?,
  • Are members truly committed to the team ?

  • Managing Conflicts
    There are techniques to manage the conflicts too, one of the most popular techniques is the Ladder of inference.

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