Naming names: helping Agile teams effectively deal with discussing individuals’ behaviour

I’ve seen a common issue where people in Agile teams are afraid to mention the behaviour of specific individuals. There’s often a fear that speaking about individuals’ behaviour will result in conflict, but indirect strategies are often self-protective and avoid dealing with the issue in a way that allows everyone to learn. By reframing the issue and learning ways of speaking about the behaviour and views of those on the team it is possible to reduce the tension, help the team learn and create more effective team interactions.

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Sally was the manager of a software development team that were under pressure after a release produced high-profile customer bugs. Tensions between individuals, which in happier times were not visible, had started to simmer and erupt.

Some of the team approached Sally in private to complain about others in the team, and one member in particular, John. They spoke of how John was “lazy” for arriving late for work and "evasive and uncommitted” because he wasn’t providing good updates or asking for help with issues at the daily stand up.

Sally listened to each team member and tried to gently raise the issue in one-on-one meetings with John. John seemed oblivious to the views that others had of him, and spent most of the discussions talking about his views on how others should act.

With the situation degrading, and pressure from senior management to “sort out the team issues” Sally called a team meeting. Sally was worried that naming individual’s such as John in the meeting would just be unproductive; he’d feel attacked, retaliate and the conflict wouldn’t do any good. Instead she decided to ask the team to figure out it’s policy on working hours and “what it looked like to participate effectively in a stand-up”. During the discussion no one mentioned John or anyone else’s attitudes or behaviour by name. There was a lot of generalised abstract discussion about “what the team should do” but the results weren’t good.

Nothing had changed in the weeks after the meeting; the team still complained to Sally about John in private conversations, John’s behaviour was no different. In the end Sally and the team decided that John’s contract had to be terminated.

It’s a common scenario for managers and individuals in teams to be afraid of naming people’s behaviour directly, often for fear of how it might make someone like John feel. In the interest of kindness, they talk around the issue (often easing-in), using indirect approaches such as gentle one-on-one conversations or generalised discussion about “team policy” even when the target is one individual in particular. When these approaches fail to work then the manager “does what they have to do” and involves HR in discussions about moving or replacing the “problem” individual. Although moving or sacking John is more likely to have a negative impact on him than speaking to him directly, the manager and team resolve that “there’s nothing else we can do”. 

Sally and the team’s desire to avoid making anyone feel bad eventually resulted in a situation where a stunned and confused John lost his role on the team. Neither Sally or the team learnt about how their behaviour may have contributed to the situation or how they might change the way they view the situation or act differently in future.

Make the behaviour of individuals discussable
It is important to be able to name people when talking about specific examples because failing to do so makes the issues hard to understand and resolve. It’s quite possible in this scenario John did not know that the discussion was focussed on him (from his point of view it was others who were the issue). Even if he did, he may feel puzzled about why the rest of the team failed to speak to him directly.

Create conditions of psychological safety
Creating an environment where the team feel safe talking about individual behaviour is important.

It can be useful to make “how do we feel about talking about individual behaviour?” a topic of team discussion.

If the team are uncomfortable it can be worth doing an exercise such as asking “what would need to happen for the team to feel comfortable using specific examples that referred to individuals?”.

One exercise is to ask people to think about situations where they have felt comfortable having others speak about their own behaviour or views explicitly. People commonly mention things like feeling like others had their interest at heart, that other’s views of them were based on specific examples and there was a sense of of working together to understand any unintended consequences of each person’s behaviour.

Reframe the situation with compassion and awareness of skilled incompetence
In the scenario above, rather than seeing John as the “problem”, Sally and the team could have been more effective if they could have re-framed the way they were looking at the situation. The view that John is “the problem” hides several assumptions, such as:

  • John is aware of the impact his behaviour is having on others
  • John has chosen his behaviour deliberately
  • The problem is mostly John
  • What the team believes about John is the truth
  • The team and the situation are not involved

As I’ve shown in my workshop on effective feedback, we are often skilfully unaware of our own ‘incompetence’ so these assumption about John’s awareness and intentions are not necessarily valid.

In the scenario, it’s not just John with an issue. Sally and the team are also part of the problem and contributing to it by not being direct with John and not owning up to the easing-in and by-pass strategies they are using. It may be worth reflecting as a team about what leads them to talk to Sally about problems they experience with others in the team, rather than talking to John directly at the time when the issues happen. 

Sally’s approach of discussing team policies, when the major issue is an individual’s behaviour is an example of solving a special cause problem (one individual’s behaviour) with a common cause strategy (change the policy/system for everyone) and is unlikely to be effective.

Learn more effective ways to talk about individual’s behaviour
Having more effective discussions that can use individual behaviour as examples requires a change in the way we talk. Telling John that he is “lazy, evasive and uncommitted” is likely to result in him feeling unfairly judged or insulted. This is because these views are high level negative evaluations of John’s behaviour that make assumptions about John’s awareness and intentions. Further, they are delivered without referring to observable behaviours that John could agree with. See my previous blog on using the ladder of inference to give feedback to someone who talks to much for more information.

Benefits
Whilst it’s not necessarily easy to reframe and practice more effective ways of acting in these situations, I’ve seen many benefits with clients that have chosen to do so. A major benefit is that it is more just for all of the whole team. Further benefits include reduced confusion, reduced tensions and greater opportunities for learning for all involved.

Photo Credit: Erin Watson Photography

About Benjamin Mitchell

Hi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.
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