How does a Scrum Master manage conflict within a scrum team?

One of the things that you have to get used to as a is conflict.

Many people think it’s a bad thing so they shy away from it or avoid it.

But like any kind of relationship, if you avoid conflict and don’t address them with open and respectful conversations, the feelings slowly sink beneath the surface and begin to fester.

Over time, those issues are going to surface and they are going to happen at a time when you least expect it or want it to surface.

Things are going to blow up. People are going to get into arguments. People are going to resent one another. There are going to be bigger problems to deal with than if you had dealt with the conflict at the time it arose.

It’s best to deal with conflict in the moment and to do so effectively.

Conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

Yes, if we are at the point where we are throwing chairs at each other or having punch ups in the office, we have gone too far and that isn’t a healthy or productive environment for anyone.

But if it is instead about an individual voicing their concerns and having a respectful, open disagreement with another individual about how best to get the job done, then we are in a great place.

In fact, you have a healthier and more productive team when they can enter and exit conflict in a controlled and respectful manner because now we have the opportunity to improve on our ideas and the opportunity to discover the best answers to our most compelling problems.

We have the opportunity to seek agreement for innovation. We have the benefit of two opposing views and as a team, we can unpack those ideas to find the answer that best serves the team.

How do you manage conflict?

First, get comfortable with conflict.

I know it’s the kind of thing that most people want to avoid but I would counsel you to lean into it, work with it, and become comfortable with facilitating conversations that may have uncomfortable origins.

In the worst case scenario of a professional environment, you are going to have someone get angry or lose their temper. That’s ok.

They might shout and scream. They might be desperately unhappy with the situation and vent their anger. That’s ok.

They will survive. The team will survive.

Accept and acknowledge the conflict. Accept and acknowledge each of the person’s perspectives, ideas, thoughts and lines of reasoning.

Often, that’s all you need to do for things to simmer down.

When people feel like they have been heard and had the opportunity to voice their disagreement, they are often more reasonable and open to hearing the opinions of others.

It’s when they feel neglected or that they need to bottle their feelings and opinions inside that things tend to erupt later down the line.

How do you do that?

It could be as simple as saying, ‘John, you don’t seem happy with this, could you take a moment to explain why?’.

Giving people the opportunity to respectfully address their concerns or points of disagreement allows them to contribute to the team and potentially make a point or share an idea that makes the team better.

A contribution that improves the product, feature or team environment.

As a facilitator, give them the space to vent their feelings and air their views. Acknowledge their perspective and thank them for having the courage to speak freely about their views and opinions.

You also want to prevent personal attacks.

There is no place for personal attacks in a team environment. Feel free to allow people to attack the idea or the line of reasoning but ensure that the individuals in the team are all respected and allowed to make their point without fear of character assassination or personal attacks.

Conflict isn’t easy to navigate but as soon as we air that conflict, we realise that it isn’t as scary as initially it might appear.

Remember, we work with decent and professional people. For the most part, people want to get along and they want to do a great job. They want to succeed, and they want the team to succeed.

They just have entrenched views or are limited, in that moment, by their own perspective without the benefit of hearing someone else’s perspective on the issue.

Ultimately, the majority of people want to resolve conflict constructively and productively.

It is very seldom that you have an environment filled with toxic people and toxic agendas.

So, as a scrum master and facilitator it’s your job to allow each party to speak their mind and demonstrate their line of reasoning. It’s your job to allow that conversation to flow for as long as it is creative, constructive, and productive.

When you suspect the conversation is veering off course or heading into dangerous territory, it is your job to be firm and assertive.

This is where a scrum master can have a massive impact on team dynamics.

By facilitating these conversations in productive and creative ways, you empower the team to find great answers and resolve compelling problems. You empower the team to move forward better than they were before the conflict and help build stronger relationships within the team.

Your role as a scrum master is to create psychological safety within the team environment. To demonstrate that conflict and disagreement is both healthy and vital to innovation. To create an environment where people feel heard, recognised, and appreciated.

Strong facilitation will help you achieve those objectives.

If the conversation heads into a destructive and unproductive path, you need to get in there and put an end to that as quickly as possible.

Doing so will earn you the respect of your team and ensure that they aren’t the ones trying to manage the conflict, they are instead participating in conversations and discussion that ultimately lead to better products, features, and working environments.

If you have the sense that things are going too far and that one or two people simply cannot move past the issue, I recommend that you pause the meeting.

Give people a timeout to collect coffee and take a break whilst you invest some time with the one or two people who are having the disagreement. Invest a little time and effort to break the deadlock with the individuals responsible and then allow the team to return for more productive discussion.

In some cases, you may need to inform the protagonists that they need to adjust their behaviour in a manner more consistent with a professional, working environment.

Seeking Agreement

To resolve any conflict, you must achieve some kind of agreement.

If you are lucky, the conflict is resolved and all parties agree with the best way forward.

In other cases, you are going to need a predetermined methodology for making a decision to move forward when there is a difference of opinion.

This takes the sting out of the conflict for many people. If you agree upfront that a majority vote determines what should happen next, it is easier for people to accept that agreement and get on board with the solution to the problem or next steps agreed upon.

In this scenario, I ask the people who are leading the disagreement to please be quiet and allow the team to discuss the issue as well as the potential next steps or options.

The protagonists have had their say and now it’s time for the team to voice their opinion or share their line of reasoning.

Allowing the team to discuss the issue productively and creatively empowers the team to discover a solution that addresses the problem and move forward respectfully and productively. Often a third alternative arises in these discussions and the team can quickly agree on the best way forward.

A quick show of hands will quickly demonstrate the majority vote and the team can quickly move onto the next issue or opportunity at hand.

If you like the idea of becoming a scrum master, visit our Certified course page.

If you are a scrum master and want to level up, visit our Advanced Certified course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to both validate and certify your professional skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional course page.

If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Academy.

If you have identified coaching as a valuable skill to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to Coaching course page.

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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