How do I deal with sabotage from an individual in the scrum team?
My first piece of advice to you is to not make that assumption.
Don’t assume that it is sabotage. Instead, think of it as a thing that happened. What we need to do, is talk about it.
Step 1 – Explore what happened
I start by talking to the person that I believe is responsible for the action or behaviour that is causing the problem. My first point of call is to understand why there are behaving the way they are and what is driving that behaviour.
I would start by stating that I observed this thing. I might even be as blunt as saying that I saw them do something and ask them if what I observed is true.
It’s an observation, get that person to agree to it.
Get that person to acknowledge that what happened, actually happened and then ask questions around what happened, why it happened and what that person’s intention behind the said action or behaviour is.
What were they trying to achieve through that action or behaviour, and why?
In the exploration, you are trying to understand whether you have misunderstood something or whether you witnessed only a part of the whole story.
- What happened from their perspective?
- Why did it happen?
- Is what you observed the whole story or is there a missing element?
- Did that person achieve the outcome they desired, or did it lead to a problem?
- Are they satisfied that their course of behaviour is appropriate and relevant?
Exploration of what happened allows you to understand the context. It also gives the other person the opportunity to provide insight and context that may allow you to understand that sabotage is not their objective or intention.
If they agree with the observation, great, we can move on. If they don’t, we need to understand what actually happened. Maybe their recollection of the event is different.
The sooner we can do this, the better.
Step 2 – Make it relevant to that person and to the team
I would say something along the lines of, ‘it bothers me that you did that thing because it looks to the team like this’. Doing so establishes a relevance to the action or behaviour and allows the other person to see that action or behaviour from a different perspective.
It allows them to understand the impact of their action or behaviour.
I’m making it clear that this is relevant, and it is something that we need to talk about before the problem festers and creates disharmony within the team environment.
I’m making it clear that this is important enough that we need to have a chat to resolve the problem.
Step 3 – Make it clear there are consequences
I then move to establish what the consequences of the action or behaviour are.
I might say, ‘because of this the team believe that you are actively working against them’ or ‘the team are concerned that this action or behaviour is misaligned with what the team have agreed is acceptable within a working environment’.
Helping that person understand that there is a consequence to their action or behaviour provides insight into what their actions or behaviour is creating within the team environment. It provides a context for the problem and allows them to understand why their behaviour is problematic.
Remember, this isn’t you talking at them, this is a conversation with them. You are raising valid and relevant points and you are trying to make them aware of the consequences of their actions, whether intended or not.
Be curious. Let them speak. Give them the opportunity to shed light on what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what their intended outcomes are?
Make sure that you use this opportunity to gain as much insight and information as possible to inform where the conversation goes next and how you may resolve the potential conflict.
Give them all the time they need to explain whatever is going on in their mind and life because maybe, you’ve got it wrong, and you want to give them the opportunity to correct how others perceive their actions or behaviour.
Step 4 – Close out with an action
I would close by asking the other person what we could do to make their decision-making more transparent or to resolve the potential problem. What could they do differently to achieve the same desired outcome?
I very seldom come across someone who is actively sabotaging a team because it makes their own lives harder. I often come across people whose actions and behaviours are misunderstood by others and so this process helps us walk through the problem, consequences and then agree on a specific action or set of actions that need to be taken within an agreed timeframe.
I will have this conversation one-on-one to start off with, a very simple feedback model that gives us the opportunity to explore all elements of the action/behaviour and decide on the most valuable action that can be taken to resolve potential conflict.
If necessary, I would then take the conversation to the team and inform them of the intended action and what has been agreed upon. I would make it clear that there has been a misunderstanding and that the individual is now aware of the relevance and consequences of their actions, but resolution is in sight.
Step 5 – Take it to a line manager
If you uncover that their actions and behaviour is genuinely as a result of disengagement and a desire to actively sabotage the team, you don’t have the authority to do anything about it as a scrum master or agile coach and will need to take it up with that person’s line manager.
You can share your observations with the line manager, walk through the discussion you had and why the person is behaving the way they are, and you can make it clear that you have made the relevance and consequences of those actions clear to the person but are unable to agree on a way forward or course of action that will correct the problem.
It is then up to the line manager to either move that person out of the team environment and onto a different team or to take relevant and necessary disciplinary action against the individual.
It is rare to find people that actively sabotage environments, so it is best to walk into that conversation with curiosity rather than judgement. Keep an open mind and be prepared to allow that other person to talk honestly and openly for as long as they need to.
You are trying to understand the action or behaviour and you are trying to make the other person aware of how those actions or behaviours are being perceived by others. You are trying to help that person align with the team and make better decisions moving forward.
Your goal is to achieve harmony within the team environment and foster actions and behaviours that help the team improve. Having open, honest and sometimes tough conversations with people is necessary to achieve that goal. So, tackle the problem early and use the feedback framework to identify and resolve problems.
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