Team Toxins, Antidotes and Agile Coaching

Conflict and “stormy weather” describes one team I’ve been serving lately as Agile Coach. Their PO and Scrum Master quit, and I’m filling in temporarily for those roles as well as Agile Coach. Yesterday they had a simple decision to make, but ended up in conflict over the smallest things.

So I thought to myself, “Good. Now the buried conflict is starting to surface where we can at least work with it!” So I let it escalate some, to the point that Jason got so mad at Susan he left the room for a time out.

I love to wear hats, and yesterday I had this great purple beret. So I took off my hat, and said, “Ok, I’m taking off my PO hat, and taking off my Scrum Master hat, and I’m putting on my coaching hat.” (my preferred, natural stance).

To save time and break up the cycle, I shifted into “go for the jugular coaching” and said , “I feel like I’m in the middle of a fight. How much longer are you willing to do this?” Nervous laughter. Then Jerry said, “Not much longer. I’m tired of fighting.”

So I dove into a basic team coaching competency, which is called “revealing the system to itself.” I said, “Ok, guys, here’s what I’m noticing: lots of interrupting, disrespect, anger, worry, and communication styles polluted by the “team toxins,” especially defensiveness, blaming, passivity and contempt. And that some voices on the team take up very little airtime, and other voices take up a large amount of airtime.”

To my surprise, Susan, the senior technical architect, blurted, “Well of course that’s all true. That’s why we keep asking for direction from somebody, anybody. It’s because we can’t work it out ourselves.”

Ah ha! Good to know! I had strongly suspected they don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I’m looking forward to a day of order-taking.” But I hadn’t understood up til that moment, what explained that behavior. And now I knew why they’ve been doing this – because they don’t yet have the alignment skills to hold diversity of opinion and resolve tensions into value-add decisions, in the words of holocracy.)

And I know they want more for themselves. Sometimes that “more” needs the coach to be willing to “tell the hard truth,” assuming you have first created a space that is both safe and courageous in your Designed Team Alliance / Agile Team Social Contract. So now that finally things were moving, I said, “Here’s a challenge for you. I think you’re going to continue to fail to get the results you want until you learn basic communication, alignment and team decision making skills. Each team toxin, like contempt, has an antidotes, like compassion and listening for ‘the 2% truth.’ And these are skills that can be learned. What’s that worth to you?”

Half of them were ready to dive into that coaching right away, and half wanted to keep working on the team accountability task in front of them, since it’s usually a 2-3 hour workshop. I facilitated a team decision and together they decided to work on their shared coaching accountability now, and then have me offer the alignment and communications workshop later in the week, since learning those skills sounded important to them.

And miracle of miracles, the skies cleared. The atmosphere got softer. The angry edges left people’s voices and they launched into a collaborative working session the likes of which I’d never seen before. Suddenly the team-in-conflict became the team-in-collaboration. Shared ownership and high quality listening came to visit. It was like the calm after the storm.

But then I got a sneaky suspicion. I wondered, “How sustainable is this newly found collaboration? I’ve only had a little time so far with them to coach alternatives to conflict, so how long will they be able to maintain this higher level of productivity?”

My mission as an Agile Coach is to bake self-sustaining high productivity into their normal ways of being and doing. So time for more guerrilla coaching.

I asked, “So are we having make up sex now?” (no doubt I’ll hear from HR on that one, but oh well).

After the initial shocked silence and then laughter, I said, “I’m serious guys.Resolving diversity of opinion is a skill, and this calm is temporary until you learn how to truly collaborate, including when things get hot. So I’m offering you a challenge, which is to really take on learning to hold diversity of views, and resolve them for team productivity and high performance.” So they decided to take up that challenge in the next few days by doing my team coaching workshops on alignment, conflict resolution, and team toxins / antidotes workshops.

By the end of the day, they came together to actually finish the work early. There’s a lot of agility transformation work they’re now ready to tackle, and they’re on the road.

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