Serious Scrum
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Serious Scrum

SCRUM MASTER STANCES

Scrum Master as a Conflict Navigator

Conflict is inevitable, how to de-escalate it and help guide the team members through it.

Have you ever felt awkward enough as to switch off your camera on a zoom meeting just because of a conflict happening at the top level? I did. And I asked myself how to navigate a conflict? So today we’ll explore conflict navigation.

Scrum master as a Conflict Navigator YouTube video

Conflict… will happen. The clash of strong personalities on the team or in the wider company is inevitable. As a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or even an Engineering Lead, you can help navigate the conflict and guide people through it, so it becomes constructive.

It’s in the face of a conflict when we bring on not only Agile good practices but also some negotiation tactics straight from Chris Voss’ Masterclass. And also empathy as best taught by Marshall Rosenberg in Nonviolent communication.

They say the best teams “live in a world of constructive disagreement.” Let’s see how to navigate that!

Scrum Master as a Conflict Navigator cover photo

Coaching Agile Teams

Who to consult about the conflict in Agile teams if not Lyssa Adkins. In her book “Coaching Agile Teams” which I hope you all read by now, she distinguishes five levels of conflict. A simple exchange of opposing views in a meeting which is considered level one is not the same as a situation in which people refuse to work with each other, see level five.

Keep your cool

For starters, Lyssa points out that a conflict is normal and to be expected. As I mentioned before, the clash of strong personalities on the team or in the wider company is inevitable. In this day and age, when we work in distributed teams, we need to take into account different tempers and cultures people come from. A misunderstanding is hard to avoid. For the subject of different cultures and contexts, I really recommend the book “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer. Very helpful to understand nuances and some surprising habits and behaviors of our fellow colleagues. This topic gives for a separate article, let’s come back to the conflict in a team and how Lyssa describes it:

“An agile team (…) will display conflict all the time — minor quips at one another, rolling eyeballs, heavy sighs, emotional voices, stony silences, tension in the air. You’ll witness dry wit, teasing, “just joking” comments, or just-short-of-snide remarks, all in the range of normal for an agile team. These behaviors signal normalcy for any group of people who spend considerable time together and who create a shared history.”

Lyssa Adkins “Coaching Agile Teams”

As she said it is normal and will happen. What’s more, we don't want to avoid conflict at any cost because the best teams “live in a world of constructive disagreement.” People must be able to disagree, to express their points of view, to discuss, and come wiser out of a discussion. It is an opportunity to learn. Learn different views, see different sides of things, and new approaches.

However, it not only happens in the teams. Did you ever feel awkward enough as to switch off your camera on a zoom meeting just because of a conflict happening at the top level in front of many people? I did. That is life and when emotions take over it is really hard for people to maintain their cool.

I once asked a senior person from my company, how he keeps his cool in the middle of a conflict and he had a golden piece of advice:

“I guess it’s a mix of temper and experience, but at the end of the day, and if you believe that everyone is acting in the company’s best interest, there’s no reason to have a strong reaction.”

Pedro Miguel Girão, Product Director, OutSystems

The Godfather, always keeping his cool

It resonated a lot with me because he managed to first, take himself out of the equation by not making it personal. Second, he draws his attention to the good intentions of the person, seeing a person behind the words or a role. When you think that we all gathered here with the intention to do the best for the company, many prejudices drop and the conversation can be much more productive. So, breath deeply, see the people behind the words, and carry on. Patience is probably one of the keywords here too. If you struggle, get yourself some Headspace!

Five levels of conflict

Having clarified how to keep your cool, let’s move on and see what are the different levels of conflict. Lyssa points us to a framework to determine the seriousness of conflict: five levels of conflict by Speed Leas. It forms an escalation path of conflict from “Level 1: Problem to Solve” to “Level 5: World War.”

5 levels of conflict as per Speed Leas

Level 1: Problem to Solve

It is a typical discussion when different arguments, values, or opposite views clash. What’s important, people still stick to the facts and look for a solution to the problem. Lyssa says “Think of level 1 as the level of constructive disagreement that characterizes high-performing teams.”

Level 2: Disagreement

At this level, “self-protection becomes as important as solving the problem.” People start protecting themselves and talking offline to one another, words move from specific to general and facts are not as important as interpretations which creates confusion.

Level 3: Contest

“At level 3, the aim is to win.” Remember the “who’s right” game from Marshall Rosenberg? And we all know how this goes. I stop listening to what you are saying as I’m preparing my response because we are in a contest of not only who’s right but also who will win. This typically occurs when we pile up the conflicts and discussions with somebody and they never get solved. At this level, people begin to align themselves with one side or the other. Emotions become tools used to “win” supporters for one’s position. People make generalizations and start using words like “always” or “never”. The discussion becomes either/or and blaming flourishes.

Level 4: Crusade

This is when it gets hot, people don’t think others can change. They don’t see a solution to the conflict other than someone getting removed from a team. Someone must leave, it is either us or them, you or me. The attacks come with ideology and principles and this becomes the focus of conversation, rather than specific issues and facts. The overall attitude is righteous and punitive.

Level 5: World War

This is destruction. It’s not enough that one wins; others must lose. Only one option at level five exists: to separate the team members so that they don’t hurt one another and others as a consequence. No constructive outcome can be had.

Identifying the level of conflict

Lyssa advises spending a fair amount of time with the team to be able to determine the level of conflict. Spend a few days or even weeks with the team so you can see as many interactions as possible. Of course, there is no guarantee of spotting the right level of conflict, it’s “observation, conversation, and intuition”.

While observing, pay attention to these three things that help assess the level of conflict: hear complaints, feel the energy, and focus on language.

De-escalate

The goal of navigating conflict is to de-escalate. I remember recently I was conducting a post mortem for an important initiative at work and suddenly I saw myself in the middle of an escalating conflict when one person said “That’s bullshit” right after the other finished. And I thought, “oh-oh!” I tried to get my act together. My only idea was to make sure the person speaking is heard and after he spoke, the other person got heard too. And that was it. People just needed to speak and be heard. Sometimes that’s all there is. In the end, they both agreed on an approach to move forward. Maybe I was lucky and people at my company are very mature or maybe creating an open forum to exchange their views helped them.

Mirroring and labeling

I encourage everyone to explore Chris Voss’ take on negotiations and the techniques he teaches in his book “Never split the difference” and in his Masterclass. After reading various authors about conflict navigation, negotiation, and communication in general, I came to the conclusion that it all comes down to compassion. Think Chris Voss on negotiation, Jordan Peterson on listening actively, or, the master, Marshall Rosenberg on nonviolent communication, they show us how important it is to listen to the other party. And also to express our emotions and intentions adequately in a way that others can feel empathy towards us.

Some simple techniques, in my view, are mirroring and labeling that Voss is teaching in his book. Mirroring is repeating the last 2–3 words that the other person just said. Do that in an inquiring mode, so we can learn more about it.

Labeling is paraphrasing what has been said so we can see if we understood well our interlocutor. It also helps us focus on what they say and see for ourselves if we understand. The great thing about it is that if we are wrong, people will happily correct us. I really recommend that you tried and practiced these techniques. Helps us move our attention to the other person and understand them better, not only in the conflict.

Keep smiling and carry on from Zaza Home Deco

And that’s all for today. As one last thing before I finish, let me just say, don’t ever underestimate the power of empathy, kindness, and transmitting optimism to people. Smile and carry on.

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