The role of Scrum master regarding team conflicts

Any activity done in group may create conflicts between individuals.

Scrum, by proposing self-organized teams synchronized by ceremonies and pair-reviews, may bring to the surface conflicts within the team and outside the team. A common thinking is that it relies on the Scrum master to solve these conflicts.  In this article we will review where the role of Scrum master lies regarding conflict resolution.

Many people believe the Scrum master is useless. On the other side of the spectrum, some people believe that he is kind of a manager of the team. Where is the truth?

Last week, there was a conflict between two members in a team that I coach. Apparently the organization, including the team members, were expecting the Scrum master to take care of that conflict. He was not so sure about his role into it. So we discussed about that question: is it the responsability of the Scrum master to solve conflicts in Scrum?

It is common for organizations to miss the soft skills required by the job of the Scrum master. Conflict management is an opportunity to review this part of the role and to see if it is useless.

Conflicts within the team regarding the work to do

This first situation occurs when several people in the team cannot agree at all on a subject that relates to the work to be done.

It can occur on a very large set of topics, from trivial like code formating, to more in depth subject like architectural style, aesthetics, columns definition of the sprint board or branching strategies.

See our article on branching strategies in Scrum if you are in this case.

Under these circumstances, the conflict can block the team to progress. It is then an impediment. It is the role of the Scrum master to help fluidify collaboration and solve the conflict.

Many tools, not specific to Scrum by the way, can be used for this, depending on the situation.

Here are a few techniques, more or less sophisticated:

  • - rediscussing roles and expectations. No, a senior developer should not assign work. Yes, a PO should write understandable, coherent and scoped stories...
  • - getting back to the actual need. Many architecture discussions can be solved by reviewing non functional requirements or product vision with the PO
  • - the technique of the three amigos to add a new perspective to the topic
  • - one-to-one coaching session can be helpful
  • - rationalize the conflict is as well a top priority. Easier said than done, but still required
  • - the help of an expert can be interesting in some cases

In that area, the role of Scrum master as facilitator, oriented towards maximizing team collaboration, will play a key role. Not so useless indeed !

To establish mutual respect and active listening within the team may require sharp soft skills and emotional intelligence on the Scrum master side. It is crucial to get a happy and high performing team.

Scrum ceremonies speed up conflict emergence (and resolution)

As we mentionned, Scrum strongly relies on interpersonal communication to build a product. Many ceremonies are made to enable autoregulation within the team, with peer-to-peer discussions on a very regular basis. It is efficient but if not properly handled, it can lead to bad situations.

Take the example of a newcomer that is not motivated because he feels completly lost in the product. He is not working very efficiently so he does not progress much on what he is working on.

On a regular V-model project, he may have the opportunity to hide a bit the lack of progress. He may keep the problem to himself as he does not feel comfortable in sharing its difficulties. Result is that he will leave the team or that few weeks or months later, someone will realize that planning is at stake.

In Scrum, he will have to stand in front of the team and answer the question of what he did the day before. That again and again every day up to the end of the sprint, ie between 10 and 20 times! This will for sure catch his mates' attention as that situation endangers the team's objectives. And that is great if the setup is good: the team can quickly move to the resolution of the problem and improve the situation of that newcomer: let's work in pair on your story!

In that case, the conflict can be resolved by the team itself thanks to the framework.

When conflicts between team members become toxic

Helping to resolve conflicts that arise during the crafting of the product is one thing. But when toxicity steps in that is a totally different story.

Team members can have strong incompatibilities, far beyond a temporary divergence on the best solution.

This kind of conflict is not only a timebounded impediment of the team, it is a fundamental long term issue in the team and beyond.

In such a situation, the role of the Scrum master is typically to:

  1. Identify the situation as a conflict
  2.  Try to solve with various conflict management techniques (see this good article for example)
  3. Diagnose that the problem goes beyond temporary impediments
  4. Hand-over the problem to a role in the organization that is typically fit for people management (People Manager, HR, ...)
  5. Follow-up the situation and mitigate the impact on the team

Hopefully by applying this simple method the Scrum master will manage to minimize the damages such a conflict may create in the team. Preserving team coherence under these circumstances is a real challenge.

Wrap-up: the Scrum master role facing conflicts

To summarize, we can say that no, the Scrum master does not have to handle all conflicts within the team.

As a facilitator, he has to take care of the potential difficulties team members have to collaborate in the day-to-day life of the team. For that, he has to demonstrate extensive soft skills and should continuously work to setup a good atmosphere.

When things goes beyond the resolution of temporary conflicts, the Scrum master should raise alarms within the organization that a recurring and potentially toxic situation is in progress and should be taken care of.

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