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Coaching Scrum Teams Through Conflict Navigation and Effective Communication Strategies

9 August 2013

Internal conflict can have a major impact on Scrum team dynamics and cohesion. As a ScrumMaster, learning how to deal with these conflicts can become a major part of your everyday job.
On the other hand, conflict is natural in any vibrant Scrum team. A fear of conflict in a Scrum team is not a good sign and can signify team apathy. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, names "fear of conflict" as one of the five dysfunctions. A ScrumMaster needs to learn how to coach the team to navigate conflict rather than avoid it.
In my previous experience as a technical coordinator, before embracing Scrum, I didn't have to go into the face of conflict very often, because team members in conflict had to deal with their issues by escalating them to their managers. I've realized that what ScrumMasters need is a "conflict management workout": a number of simple practices to keep in mind when trying to navigate conflict effectively.
Below a summary of those practices, as stated by Carl Robinson in his 13 Steps for Navigating Conflict Effectively:

1. Be proactive. Head off problems before they snowball. Ask your peers or subordinates, "How are we doing? What can I do to improve the effectiveness of our relationship?" Those questions can be kept in mind during a retrospective facilitation.


2. Establish a set of working agreements for resolving conflicts in advance. In truly creative settings, conflict is inevitable and necessary, so plan for effectively managing conflict. Think of the working agreements as ground rules for behavior within and outside the team. Don't wait for the conflict to happen before establishing ground rules for navigating conflict.

3. Deal directly with others. Whenever possible, don't bring in a third party (generally one's boss). This is called triangulation. Triangulation is an attempt to avoid responsibility by using the third party to join your side on an issue. Triangulating keeps people from resolving issues among themselves.

4. Keep a private disagreement private. Making private disagreements public increases the tension around the issues, because people become more defensive the more public an issue becomes.

5. Discuss the issue only when those involved are present. Stop the discussion immediately if someone brings up an issue that involves another team member not at the meeting. The team owes it to the missing team member to postpone further debate until he or she can be present.

6. Focus on the facts. Everyone involved in a conflict needs to be prepared to discuss the issue armed with the facts. Being prepared encourages people to debate critical issues based on data rather than on feelings. Ignorance is not bliss. Encourage informed discussion of critical issues.

7. Generate multiple options/alternatives when conflict arises. Consider four or five options at once -- even some you don't support. Having multiple alternatives helps diffuse conflict and reduces the chance that team members will polarize around just two possibilities.

8. Create team alignment by attending to and clarifying four specific areas:

  • Scrum team vision
  • ScrumMaster, product owner, and development team roles and responsibilities
  • Working agreements and user stories' definition of done
  • Understanding and accepting differing personal styles of interaction
9. Hold sessions with your team about alignment. Determine your teams's clarity about the four alignment areas from the previous tip. Provide any necessary information to remove ambiguity.


10. Diversity helps. Develop the capability to understand and respond to differing personality styles. People respond best when they feel they are understood and not looked down upon. Develop tolerance and respect for differences. Diversity of opinions and styles breeds a better outcome -- just as diversity in nature does.

As Robinson further states, "Most people wait until contentious issues escalate and become a bigger problem before attempting to deal with them. That's called conflict avoidance, or burying your head in the sand. An effective ScrumMaster should help the team become adept at navigating conflict. Imagine a vibrant workplace where people debate important issues in a civil manner. It doesn’t happen by accident. It takes practice and discipline."
Mediating is another way to help reduce conflict on the team. The ScrumMaster is the ideal person to model conflict management in a positive way. Ryan Hedstrom, in his article "Coaching Through Conflict: Effective Communication Strategies," lays out the following four principles to draw upon when you're in the position of resolving conflict among team members:

1. Active listening. There are several recognized ways to show that you're really listening.

  • Display a willingness to listen can help alleviate conflict.
  • Encourage the speaker by asking questions and showing interest.
  • Validate the speaker. You can still show interest in the person while not necessarily agreeing with her or his point of view.
  • Restate the speaker's message by paraphrasing main points.
  • Center the conflict by trying to find the key points of the message.
2. Nonverbal communication. A cold shoulder, eye roll, or clenched jaw can go a long way toward communicating a point without your saying a word. In fact, 70 percent of our communication is nonverbal in nature. Be open and consistent in your body language; it will help defuse emotion.

3. "I" statements. This technique is centered in the belief that if the speaker takes responsibility for her or his statements, others will be less likely to simply react and put up a defense. When comparing the following statements, the first puts the receiver of that message on the defensive due to the blaming and accusing nature of the statement, and the second shows the speaker taking ownership:
  • "You hurt the team when you don't show up to conditioning on time."
  • "I'm frustrated when you don't show up to conditioning on time."
4. Avoid common communication obstacles. It's easy to fall into several traps when dealing with conflict. Some common obstacles that get in the way of effective mediation are:
  • Advising: "Well, I'll tell you what I'd do . . . "
  • Diagnosing: "Your problem is that you . . . "
  • Discounting: "Cheer up, it'll work out."
  • Lecturing: "How many times do I have to tell you . . . "
  • Threatening: "This is the last time I will . . . "
  • Preaching: "You ought to know better than to . . . "
Hedstrom also names some clear do's and don'ts, as follows:

Do . . .
  1. Convey the value of your relationship with the person.
  2. Go slowly with what you want to communicate.
  3. Try to understand the other person’s position.
  4. Listen to what the other person is trying to communicate.
  5. Confront the situation, not the person.
Don't . . .
  1. Communicate the solution; it is better to focus on the problem.
  2. Stop communicating.
  3. Use put-downs or sarcasm.
  4. Rely on nonverbal hints to communicate; be direct and forthcoming.
  5. Discuss the problem with others not associated with the conflict.

Conflict is a double-edged sword. Some amount of it is natural in a creative team. On the other hand, too much, left unmoderated, can hinder that creativity and damage team members' working relationships. The ScrumMaster's responsibility is to manage conflict: Learn to spot it, handle it positively, and defuse it when it becomes negative.

References and suggested resources

Adkins L. Coaching Agile Teams. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 2010.

Fisher R. and Ury W. Getting to Yes. New York: Penguin Books. 1991.

Gross B. and Zimmerman G. Mediating Interpersonal Conflict. North Manchester, IN: Education for Conflict Resolution. 1997.

Hedstrom R.A. and Lauer L. Resolving conflict: Effective mediation tools for coaches. Adult learning module for the MHSAA coaching advancement program. East Lansing, MI: MHSAA. 2006.

Hedstrom R. Coaching through conflict: Effective communication strategies. Association for Applied Sport Psychology. 2012.

Lencioni P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Wiley. 2002.

Robinson C. 13 Steps for Navigating Conflict Effectively. Advanced Leadership Consulting. 2009.

Toropov B. The art and skill of dealing with people. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1997.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.4 (19 ratings)


Glen Wang, CSM, 8/9/2013 12:52:36 AM
No Fear is the 1st leadership attribute.
Eduardo Cantu, CSM, 8/9/2013 6:31:32 AM
Good article! And it came in a very good time.
Dave Ramanauskas, CSP,CSM, 9/12/2013 3:09:38 PM
I would add this book to the recommended reading list:
"Crucial Conversations"
Ganesh Subramanian, CSM, 9/16/2013 2:02:31 AM
Thank you for the article Francesco. As a practicing Scrum Master, I found it extremely helpful in my interactions with my Scrum Team. I have so far been able to apply a couple of mentioned techniques with amazing results. Ultimately, Scrum is all about people!. Thanks!. Regards, Ganesh.
Francesco Attanasio, CSP,CSM, 9/24/2013 4:05:22 PM
@Ganesh Thanks for your feedback, I'm very happy that you found my article useful ;-)

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