How does a Scrum Master heal a toxic team environment?
The short answer is that they don’t.
Yes, the role of a scrum master is to create the environment where the team can do their best work but it’s not all on them to solve the team issue, especially when you consider that without authority and the power to make changes, there is very little that a scrum master can DO to solve the issue.
This is one of the important distinctions. Agile coaches and Scrum Masters don’t tend to do things. It isn’t their responsibility to actively do the work necessary to create a product nor are they line managers who have the authority to hire and fire as required.
Their role requires a blend of facilitation, coaching and influence to help the team achieve their objectives so they would often need to have conversations with people in positions of power and authority to get things done.
A toxic team environment
When we recognise that a team environment is becoming toxic, it isn’t on the scrum master to FIX the environment. We don’t fix other people. We aren’t therapists or psychologists.
If you recognise that interactions between the team members have become toxic and underlying issues that fester are not being surfaced, we need to recognise that and work toward helping the team surface these issues and deal with them effectively.
The team will create a better environment and take the necessary action to resolve conflict and eliminate toxic behaviour, it is our job to help them do that.
Understand that this will be a long process. It is unlikely that you will be able to surface these issues and effectively deal with them overnight. Change is hard for people, particularly when there are thorny issues at play, and you need to approach this with patience.
Step 1 – Call out the behaviour
Your first step is to acknowledge what is happening and to call it out.
Make the situation visible to others so that they can’t ignore it. Toxicity in teams goes on for long, long periods of time and slowly festers if we don’t tackle it head on.
So, that’s our role. Bring the issues to the light and make the team aware that something needs to be done about the behaviours or issues that are impacting the team environment.
It is a hard conversation to have but as a scrum master, you need to bring the team together and offer up what you are witnessing as an observation. Tell the team what you are seeing and perceiving and ask them questions around that.
This is what I’m seeing, this is what I’m perceiving, this is what I think is happening.
They may or may not agree with you. Sometimes, it is hard for teams to acknowledge what is happening and many of them hope that ignoring the issue will make it go away so allow the team some time to digest what you are saying but be persistent in addressing the issue.
By letting the team know what you are seeing, you are making something visible, and the team may or may not be ready to address that, which is okay. If they are ready to address the issue, that is great, but if they aren’t, you have at least made the team aware of the potential problem and can allow them time to consider the problem(s) at hand.
Step 2 – Help the team explore this space
So, this is going to be one-on-one conversations with individuals in the team, exploring what has been surfaced in terms of toxic behaviour.
You’re going to be asking whether others witness the same thing that you do and do they perceive it as toxic as well. You’re going to be exploring whether you are right about the environment and if it is having an impact on members of the team.
You’re going to be identifying whether people in the team environment can talk to each other in a useful, constructive way. You’re going to explore whether psychological safety exists within the team environment and whether people feel comfortable speaking truth to power.
This is your litmus test to check whether you are right about what is happening in the environment and how severe the problem may be.
You’re double checking yourself on this and ensuring that your conversations are open and honest with others to explore what might be happening, when it may be happening, and why it may be happening.
This step will give you solid insight into what is actually happening and how you can potentially resolve that issue. How you tackle this will be unique to every situation and will require that you combine both your facilitation and coaching skills to both identify and resolve problem areas.
Toxicity in the workplace is a very tough conversation to have with both individuals and teams, and you’re going to tap into your facilitation skills to get the team to acknowledge what is happening and commit to identifying potential solutions to the problem.
Your coaching skills empower you to ask questions that empower the team to think deeply about the problem and develop ideas about the best way to move forward.
Step 3 – Deploy non-violent communication
Non-violent communication is when you articulate ideas, concepts, opportunities, etc. without putting forward your ideas forcefully or insisting on your solution being the main opportunity to be considered by the team.
It avoids putting judgement and accusations behind the words you speak and working exclusively from something that you do own, your own feelings, thoughts, and perceptions about what happened or is currently happening.
So, you will often start with a very simple observation.
When you did this, I felt that. When you two did this in the meeting, I got concerned that the whole team wasn’t included. And so forth.
It opens a conversation and, in my experience, people react super well to that kind of communication. Sometimes, they simply acknowledge that their behaviour has caused an issue and provide a valid explanation for what they intended to achieve.
At other times, they will acknowledge how their behaviour impacts the team and commit to making the necessary changes to ensure that their behaviour and actions don’t impact the team negatively.
Step 4 – Use ORCA as a feedback tool
You use the framework by starting with your observation. Communicating what you have witnessed clearly and succinctly. You follow with the relevance of what you have observed and provide a context.
For example, I witnessed you two talking during the meeting and it appears that you are not engaged in the topic. It also appears to others that you are not engaged in the topic and that you are talking about something which you aren’t willing to share with the team.
You then speak about the consequence of what you have observed and the relevance of that observation.
For example, forming a clique and communicating outside of the team erodes trust and creates an environment where others don’t perceive that transparency is important and present.
Action is about what can be done to resolve the situation or prevent it from happening again.
For example, asking how I can help the two people involved pursue open, honest and transparent conversations with the team and how can I help embed that behaviour?
You’re asking the people directly involved how you can help them to take the necessary action to prevent toxic behaviours and potential curveballs for the team.
ORCA is a framework for feedback that really grounds that feedback in facts.
Get them to accept the observation. Did it happen? Yes. Get them to accept the relevance. Get them to at least understand the consequences of their actions and behaviour. Get them to help you structure the action.
This way you’re providing feedback. I’m not going to pretend it is comfortable but it is effective. It also allows you to move from observation to action in a way that includes their agreement and commitment.
Working through the toxic behaviours and issues with your team, firstly on a one-to-one basis and secondly on a team basis, will allow you to educate the team on both the relevance and the consequences of what is happening, and help you gain agreement on what action needs to take place.
If you are a scrum master and find yourself working in a toxic environment, this would be my advice to you.
For more information on John McFadyen, visit https://www.johnmcfadyen.com or connect with John on LinkedIn.
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