Personal conflict in agile teams - a fictional story
Sometimes people just don’t get along. At the heart of agile practice is building teams that trust each other and feel safe enough to share openly, so when things go wrong it can be devastating if not controlled quickly.
What kinds of conflict might exist?
Development teams are made of snowflakes - unique personalities with different world views and experience. Each and every person has their own point of view, but generally conflict falls into only a few categories:
- Sexual harassment
- Technical (“I want things my way”)
- Difference in values
- Respect (lack thereof)
- Personal or behavioral
In this post we’re going to specifically focus on personal issues. When certain behaviors trigger an emotional response in another party and it leads to conflict, but it is not specifically a HR issue yet.
How might it manifest?
The following is an example based on real events but with fictional characters instead of real people.
Frank and Jenny are used to working together; they’re both new to agile but Jenny used to report to Frank when they had a hierarchical structure in place. Now, with an agile team structure in place they’re both trying to learn new skills.
Jenny sees that she has a lot to learn in addition to her high workload and begins taking things into her own hands, she begins arranging meetings to learn from co-workers.
Frank is unsure where to start, he wants someone to coach him but the team is under pressure to deliver. He sits back and waits for a few weeks, he has time to spare. When he hears that Jenny is arranging meetings without inviting him along he gets upset, he attends even though he’s not invited.
Jenny doesn’t understand why Frank is so upset, he could have arranged his own. Frank is upset that Jenny is doing things as he feels he out ranks Jenny. The situation escalates; Jenny tries to avoid Frank and Frank ignores Jenny when he next sees her.
Neither of them are happy with things now.
Frank tries to rally support for his cause by stirring up water cooler conversation with colleagues. They’re not interested in participating so he psychs himself up and goes to Jenny: “Can we go and talk. Right now.”
Jenny feels threatened, she doesn’t want to talk when Frank is visibly angry.
- Jenny doesn’t like the way Frank speaks to her
- Frank thinks of Jenny as a subordinate
- Frank believes he could make things very hard for Jenny; he could refuse to work with her
When people refuse to work together
This is the easy way out; they’re cutting each other off essentially. You may have heard of the saying:
an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind
If we all refused to cooperate then nobody would benefit from the experience of others. Worse still, the person who joins another team (if it’s even possible) is joining with baggage that everyone now knows.
Here are my suggestions for repairing frayed relationships in the workplace:
- Investigate the root cause.
- Understand the intent of both parties. Is one or both parties acting out of malice?
- Identify common ground; what do they both want?
This is the time to revisit the foundation that the team is built upon. Create the clean sheet that’s required for both parties to feel safe.
First we need to let both parties be heard. Normally, if communication breakdown reaches this point - face to face interaction is too hard (read: emotionally driven) at this point so I’d suggest individual mediation in the first instance whereby the facilitator meets with both parties independently to hear their thoughts and share some third-party perspective.
If that isn’t enough to make both parties want to repair the relationship, have each person write down briefly how they feel and why they feel that way on a post-it note to be exchanged with the other party. The post-it note format is deliberately to keep things concise and to make sure they don’t cloud the situation with emotive language.
Once you’ve established a common understanding and agreement to move forward there’s an opportunity to rebuild that relationship.
Go back to basics, here’s a list of places you might begin:
- Does the team have a working agreement? If so, now is a great time to revisit it.
- This is an opportunity to learn; how can the team communicate more effectively in future?
- Does everyone understand agile depends on a flat structure?
- We all need to be T-shaped; experts and managers don’t fit well in agile teams.
- Retrospectives matter - it’s the right place to share.
The main thing you need to understand is: How will Frank and Jenny solve their issues in future?
The team has a common purpose. Make clear that both parties are essential to delivering that result and that working together will make the team more successful.
Frank and Jenny will be ok - as long as they’re prepared to take this process seriously and they both want to resolve these issues.
- Identify the type of conflict
- Listen and hear them out; remain unbiased
- Reset - clear the air
- Rebuild - provide the tools to deal with conflict
- Refocus - close the conflict by focusing on the team’s future
- Move forward and keep observing the situation