Coaching Agile Teams on Relationship Management

By Jamie Leatherman - September 14, 2019

Coaching Agile Teams on Relationship Management
September 14, 2019 By Jamie Leatherman

Coaching Agile Teams on Relationship Management

"Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results." -- Andrew Carnegie

Achieving “uncommon results” because your team is solid … this is the thing of titans.  The Agile mindset lends itself to these sorts of results all the time. Teams that master getting these types of results all have one thing in common: they know how to manage relationships with their colleagues. Often times, as Agile practitioners, we struggle with getting team members to understand the importance of good relationship management.

In the professional (or “corporate” – I shudder at that word) world, many people believe that discussing relationship management is too “mushy.” On my own teams, every time we start to talk about relationships, I will warn them with this: “we are about to enter campfire-Kumbaya-land and talk about our feelings, so bear with me here.” I definitely get the cursory eye roll from a few people every time, but by starting the conversation in this way, the team knows we’re about to “get real” and start talking about our feelings.  Cue the audible groans. But that is a simple technique an Agile practitioner can use to get their team to understand how important it is to manage our relationships with other team members: “Set the Stage.”  

When we coach people to be on alert that the conversation is going to shift from the professional to the emotional, people can consciously make the mental shift that is required to dig deeper for the ensuing discussion. Some other tips and tricks to get teams to focus on relationship management:

1. “Practice What You Preach”

YOU practice good relationship management. A team will follow your example, so you must exemplify what it looks like to manage relationships… and manage them well. For the Agile practitioner, we have the opportunity to establish relationships with people, all the way up from the CEO down to junior developers. If your team sees you badmouthing leadership’s direction for the organization, they will follow suit. If a team member comes to you complaining about another team member and you engage in talking about that person behind their back, the person who was complaining will think that this is acceptable behavior. You will not be able to coach that team member to confront the person they’re having a problem with because they will just think they can come to you with their complaints – and that means, they never have to face the issue head on.

Agile practitioners have a large responsibility to be the kind of leader that they want to see in their team members. If we cannot cultivate good relationships with everyone we come across in organizations, how can we expect them to? Lead by example, and manage your relationships in a manner worthy of mimicking. 

2. Schedule Team Building Activities OUTSIDE the Office

The Team that plays together, stays together. In my own career, I have seen team outings completely change entire dynamics of teams that could not get along. One example in particular: I had a test engineer and a developer that could NOT get along.  The developer was telling anyone on the team who would listen (except the test engineer) about all of the issues he had with her. By gossiping with the team instead of confronting her head on, a culture of fear started to emerge on our team. People didn’t want to speak up because they thought whatever they said would be talked about behind their backs.

coaching agile teams on relationship management

To combat this, my PO and I decided we were going to take the team out for a happy hour. Upon arrival, I had strategically arranged the seating so that these two had to sit across from each other.  Within an hour, they were laughing with each other and joking around – and they even began to talk about their issues. This resulted in “putting it all out on the table” and then laughing about it. In the weeks that followed, that developer stopped coming to me and started going to her directly. 

Blame it on the happy hour cocktails we were enjoying, but when you take people out of their working environment into a neutral, fun environment – they’re just … different. I don’t know the science behind it, but I’ve watched it work with my own eyes. People feel less pressure about the work itself when the work is not staring them right in the face. They can disengage from the work and the workplace and see their teammates in a different environment. I mean, alcohol helps, but don’t mishear the message: people act differently outside of work. And it’s not just about team building – it’s about these events being OUTSIDE the office. 

Do your Sprint Retrospective at the picnic tables outside! Do a ropes course together!  Schedule a lunch or dinner cruise! The point is: get the team out of the (sometimes) oppressive, stressful environment where they are expected to perform and into an environment where they can decompress and just enjoy themselves. You can also coach people who are experiencing conflict with each other to get out of the office together, alone, to talk out their differences. Just a change of scenery can do a lot of good.

3. Teach Your Team the “Power of Comfortable Confrontation”

Is there any such thing as comfortable confrontation? Most would probably argue there is not. However, as Agile practitioners, we are required to master the art of conflict resolution (whether we want to or not). And as these experienced practitioners, we must teach our teams to resolve conflict head on. Ok, but that’s still uncomfortable. Maybe. If you haven’t built a firm foundation with the other party, then YES – it’s very uncomfortable. But if you have fostered a positive relationship with the other party, confronting them is easier.

Note to reader: “positive relationship” doesn’t have to mean that you are best friends with the other party.  It just means that, at a minimum, you are able to civilly communicate with that person about what needs to get done.

coaching agile teams on relationship management

Even in situations where one is merely civil with someone they are having a conflict with, as coaches, we need to teach them that confronting issues head on is the best path toward resolution. We know, from experience, that gossiping about it only worsens the problem and further deteriorates the team dynamic. We also know, from experience, that Scrum Masters are usually the first ones the team will go to with an issue – before they confront the person they are having the issue with.  There’s nothing wrong with this – Scrum Masters have the innate ability to earn team trust as servant-leaders. However, a good Scrum Master doesn’t let this information sit with them for very long.  They need to hear the person out but then encourage them to confront the person head on.

The Scrum Master also might be privy to information from the other party that will help him or her in advising the person coming to them with how to confront. For example, if Bob comes to me and says, “I’m so fed up with Janice! She’s late to every morning Daily Scrum, and it’s not fair! We’re all on time, and she’s missing important information, so I have to catch her up every day! Can you please talk to her?” I would say to Bob, “Yes, I know that’s frustrating. But Janice has a reason for being late every day, which she brought to me in confidence. I won’t share that with you, but I’d love to encourage you to have a little empathy for her and go talk to her about this, face to face.  Let her know you’re frustrated, and give her the opportunity to open up to you. If she does, you might gain some clarity about her situation. If not, ask her if we can amend the team agreement to have Daily Scrum later in the day.”

I have given Bob two directions which he could take, both with outcomes that could possibly alleviate his frustrations. But the key is that I’m not doing it for Bob. I coach him to do it.  When you encourage team members to talk to each other instead of you, you are teaching them an invaluable lesson in self-resolution of conflict – an ability that can also be used in their personal lives and beyond.

4. Encourage the Team to Invest in Themselves

Teams win together, and they fail together. But sometimes, teams can have a weak link, and this is very irritating for highly-skilled, productive team members. These “weak links” need to self-assess their contribution to the team, or the relationships will suffer. As Agile practitioners, we can handle this in many different ways – to the extreme of “voting them off the island” if there is absolutely no improvement. However, if the team member who is lacking skills displays an attitude that is hungry to learn, encourage them to invest in themselves by taking online classes; asking their organization to send them to training; asking other team members to pair with them; etc. The sky is the limit with options!  But timebox it. Coach this team member to do this self-investment by a certain date so that they can start to show improvements within the team, quickly. If they are successful in learning, the investment will ultimately lead to the whole team’s success and a better team dynamic.

In summary, managing relationships is hard, even at home – and that’s a place where we are naturally inclined to foster good relationships – we naturally want harmony with the people that live with us! At work, this is an uncomfortable thing to navigate because, again, people don’t like to talk about their feelings with their colleagues. But, as coaches, if we don’t focus on making relationship management an integral part of our teachings, we are doing teams a major disservice. Relationships matter, even in the workplace. And we need to use everything in our tool belts to make teams understand this. Now let’s all get around the campfire and sing a round of Kumbaya!