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Agile Coaching Around Conflict Management

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Key Takeaways

  • Conflict is not inherently bad - in fact healthy conflict is necessary in high performing teams
  • There are different types of conflict, some of which are distinctly unhealthy
  • A coach is not responsible for resolving conflict - they create the space to enable the resolution 
  • There a variety of tools which teams can use to address and resolve conflict
  • Some conflicts are not resolvable and we need to accept and live with these differences

At the point, as I write this article or when you read it, there will be millions of teams working across the globe, delivering solutions. Be it Information Technology, real estate, manufacturing, etc. universally we have teams working towards common goals, where the team consists of people from different backgrounds, perspective and with different mindsets; working with such a diverse group is not always a cakewalk. With my experience working with teams, I have realized that no team is perfect on day one and we should accept this fact! Now that most software teams are moving towards Agile, doing Agile in contrast to being Agile, knowing that it is more geared towards individuals, interactions, collaboration and teamwork, let’s discuss how coaching can help with conflict management and help teams sail successfully through constructive conflict discussion.

Conflicts are not bad, it is the way we handle them that makes a difference.

So what exactly is conflict? Patrick Lencioni has brilliantly laid out this discussion in his book ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ where fear of conflict is one of the dysfunctions he calls out. The dictionary says – "an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles". It is not about the individuals involved but about their thoughts, principles, and views. Interestingly, everyone is correct in their own way. Conflict is likely and a typical part of any human interaction; there is nothing unusual about conflict. It is what we do about it when it occurs which is important. One has to accept that conflict will always be present in the workplace.

Why do conflicts arise?

The conflicts at a workplace can be divided into five (5) categories - conflict within an individual, interpersonal conflict, conflict between an individual and the group, intergroup conflict, inter-organizational conflict.

There are several other classifications but here I will try to capture some common areas which are usually seen in our work environment:

  • Conflict of Interest: Understanding how personal benefits and goals align with those of the organization will relieve conflict of interest issues. When an individual's personal goals are at odds with goals of the organization, the individual may be attracted to fight for his personal goals, creating a conflict situation that will obstruct the accomplishment of some activities.
  • Imprecise Responsibility: When it is uncertain who is accountable for which task, conflict can happen. Problems ascend when decisions are made that appear to cross boundaries of responsibility. When team members don't understand their exact role in a team effort, they often spend time working on items they shouldn't be doing.
  • Mutual Dependence-based conflict: Sometimes individuals are dependent on someone for input or output to get their work done which can also cause discord. For example, if a member of your development team is repeatedly late in delivering stories for testing then the work for the person doing the testing will be hampered.
  • Workstyle variances: Everyone has a different style of working to complete assigned tasks. It is important to keep this in mind when training new employees and managing workload.
  • Cultural-based dissension: Inevitably, teams from various different backgrounds will experience conflict. To handle and block clashes, it is crucial to strike a balance between these differences.
  • Personality clashes: Personality clashes at a workplace are generally fueled by perceptions about someone’s actions, character or motives.

Five Levels of Conflict

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument was developed in the 1970s to describe conflict in the workplace and the best ways to handle conflicts. Knowing which of the levels of conflict apply in a situation helps you prevent a small problem from turning into a major disaster.

  • Competing - Conflict is resolved when an individual takes a strong position and doesn’t deviate from that position.
  • Accommodating – Situations or circumstances in which resolving the conflict is more important than the actual outcome.
  • Avoiding - The individuals involved refuse to change the circumstances.
  • Collaborating - Serious attempt to find a solution that all sides will find acceptable.
  • Compromising - At this level, however, the goal is to achieve a solution in which every person involved in the conflict must give up something. In other words, in the true sense of negotiation.

As a Leader, am I responsible for resolving it?

With Agile teams working together to create deliverables, at the same time responding to the built-in the pressure of a time-boxed sprint, conflicts can easily brew and simmer over a while. As an Agile Coach, you will be a spectator to what is going inside the teams, you will have to expertly determine what’s happening, you will have to decide whether to pitch in, if yes, then how. But most importantly, you must teach the team how to steer through it, making sure the business is intact. As per Lyssa Adkins "As their coach, you help teams navigate conflict. You show them a method. You can’t give them a full-color, waterproof chart that marks the shoals and hazards. You can give them something more precious, more powerful. You can give them a guide, a framework, so that they create their charts, whenever they need to do so."

In the role of a Coach or Leader, you must determine what level of conflict is present in the team. It is the same as the physician analyzing the ailment or the pain areas and accordingly prescribing medicine for the problem identified. Every problem is different, so is their solution. Ascertaining the level of conflict is not that hard, as the saying goes, ‘Agile Coaches can smell the room’ hence it’s just about observation, dialogue exchange, and instinct. Although, you may have different views on the overall level of conflict on a team at a particular time, be mindful that the team undergoing conflict is experiencing a different level of a hubbub. This is the most interesting part.

Tools to help the team address the conflict

Now the question is what should you be doing at this point? Simple Answer - Just hear them out, feel the energy and focus on the language. Notice how the team room feels when you first walk in.

Are people interacting together, in conversation, at the whiteboard, or around their computers? Is there a sense of determination? Or, are people coming in and out? Are discussions disjointed or being held more than once? Or is there something prowling just below the surface? Feeling the energy gives you an additional sign to help measure the level of conflict. Focusing on language is about what people say and how they say.

According to Lyssa Adkins, there are certain levels of language being used to access the teams’ or individual’s communication.

  • Level 1 – Team members involve conflict agreeably and positively.
  • Level 2 - The discussion changes to make room for self-protection.
  • Level 3 - Distorted language such as overgeneralizations, presumptions, magnified positions, either/or emerges, the real issues get lost.
  • Level 4 - Becomes more ideological.
  • Level 5 - Features full-on combat.

Team members can voice the complaint openly or guardedly. When people express their pain, we as agile coaches have an intuitive response which compels us to promptly help them, we think we have to "solve" their problem. But this action is what we have to resist. As a coach, work on the conflict, whether it is a perfect way or not, it’s fine, let them learn, even in mother nature there are many examples where the little ones struggle to adjust to a new environment, they learn to stand, walk or fly on their own and yes, they do succeed. True are the words from Chris Corrigan in The Tao of Holding Space: "Everything you do for the group is one less thing they know they can do for themselves". It is always better to let the team handle and work around their own situations.

What if we still face challenges?

But if there comes a point where your inputs are required, we do have a response mode for such situations too!

1.    Evaluate and Counter the situation

You should be able to see through the situation, at this point ‘Emotional Intelligence’ plays a critical role. You must detach yourself and see the situation from a neutral stance. Always remember, everyone in the team will have their perspective on the conflict. It’s like the story which you might have read in school days ‘Four blind men and an Elephant’, people tend to see the situation from their point of view and everyone is correct in their way.

2.    Back to Basics

Agile teams work with inbuilt values, principles or roles that help them move forward in their Agile journey. At the time of conflict, as a leader in Agile environment, you can use these as your "roots". In coaching terminology, the roots of agile are similar to structures — "devices that remind people of their vision, goals or purpose, or the action they need to take immediately. Collages, calendars, messages on voice mail, and alarm clocks can serve as structures" (Whitworth et al. 2007).

3.    Carrying Complaints

In some situations, where team members are not comfortable talking about the issues with another party, they may come to the coaches to vent out and for resolution – whether the conflict is between the delivery team members, the functioning of the code issue, it can be anything where you can be pulled. The members involved in the conflict seek help from their Scrum Masters/Team Leads or someone they trust to talk on their behalf.

Last week, one of the delivery team members came to me to talk about the disturbance she is facing due to loud meetings and discussions with the same team members and asked if I could help in resolving this issue by talking to the team on her behalf. Sometimes this indirect way of handling situations works, but is it the right way?

As commander of your ship, help the team see that conflict is normal—and useful—if it remains constructive.

Try asking the members:

  1. If they have talked about their concerns with the other party? If the complainer has not, cheer them to do so.
  2. If they are reluctant to do so, ask if you can accompany them. Let the person know that you will be there for moral support and not to be the conveyor of the update.
  3. If the person is still very unwilling to talk directly, you can offer to talk on the complainer’s behalf.

Resorting to point 3 will place you in the limelight as "the carrier" of the accusation and elongates the condition. If it is the only choice, though, remember this: Never carry anonymous complaints. Let a complainer know that you will reveal who has the complaint.

How to live with unresolvable conflicts?

In the quest to teach teams that conflict is normal, we tend to forget that sometimes conflicts just don’t go away, teams have to live with it.  Agile coaches can help the team increase the number of positive communications and help the teams avoid misunderstanding by using a shared vision. Sometimes, the team members fear to speak up about their concerns, team members talk behind the back with half-cooked information, not knowing the right thing. You should pay attention to the quality of the conversation, the team might not notice this in their discussion but as a third person, one should inspect with neutrality.

Resolving conflicts cannot be only done by the above-mentioned ways, but, it is more of an experienced-based solution. Success is when they can catch the destructive conversations and mould their way towards a constructive one. Or it is when there is no fear of raising their concerns and talking it out amongst themselves.

In the end, resolving teams’ conflicts is not the job of a leader or a coach, but helping them realize the issue and ways to work on them is. One must pay close attention to the teams in conflict and decide when and how to intervene. Also, help the teams understand the five levels of conflict so that they can identify where they stand. This not only helps the team stabilize in conflict but it also avoids further misery in terms of impact on the work.

About the Author

Deepti Sinha is an Agile Coach by profession and Freelance Trainer with over 11 years of industry experience working primarily with healthcare & finance clients in delivering business. She has played a wide variety of roles in the graph of her career, whether it be, management, operations or quality. She likes reading fiction, management and loves to write her experiences. Her colleagues mostly describe her as very detail oriented person with a knack of creativity and imagination.

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