An Important But Uncooperative Team Member

The following question was posted to the Ask Anything page. Feel free to ask your own questions here or contribute your thoughts to this question in the comments section below.


From: A New Scrum Master
Location: England
Subject: Important but uncooperative team member

Hello. My company is new to scrum and agile, and I am new to being a scrum master. For about a year I’ve being coaching two teams in the way of scrum and we’ve seen great progress – but I’ve recently run into a problem. One team member in one of my teams is against team work and recently has been outwardly disrespectful to me. When I took them aside and asked them how I may have offended them, I was told that I was not their boss and that I couldn’t tell them what to do. I’ve never thought of myself as the team’s manager, but someone who helps them along, trying to let them know the highest priorities in regards to the Product Owners needs/wants – never commanding anyone to do anything specifically.

The rest of the team participates in planning poker for project estimates, and helps write on the board during retros (or at the very least shares ideas or issues). This other member prefers to sit in the back of the conference room and say nothing.

During daily stand ups, the team gathers around our desks because we are in a 4 person cubical, but this person keeps their back turned to me whenever I talk and practically gives the cold shoulder. I’ve tried confrontation (one on one) and I’ve tried reasoning with them. I’ve also asked for feedback to understand how I am offending them but they simply tell me “When you get like that I’m just going to push back.” I have been told by another co-worker (who is not part of our team) that they have complained “She is not a manager! She’s never had managerial experience! Why is she a scrum master??” – to which I go back to my thought of: I am NOT a manager, nor have I thought of myself as one.

I’m afraid the negative attitude will poison the rest of that team, but the person’s work is a great asset to the team’s success. I feel strongly in keeping harmony amongst the team, as I feel it is my job to keep everyone happy and to give everyone what they need to succeed – but then how do I handle this?


RESPONSE

An agile transformation will illuminate long-hidden dysfunctions in an organization. In fact, if it doesn’t I would be a little skeptical of just how “agile” their transformation really is. What you are experiencing is a normal part of change journey but what will make or break an organization is how they respond once a dysfunction is revealed. The post Agile, The Amplifier shares more on this subject.

Reading a little into your situation, the person you refer to:

  • May be a product of bad management over the years to let disrespectful behavior fester and continue
  • May have extensive domain knowledge or expertise so managers are afraid to let them go
  • May be considered a “rock-star” or a “go-to” person and has answers people are looking for
  • May be nervous about how a collaborative and cross-functional environment such as agile will impact their standing as the “go-to” person

So what are your options? Strictly my opinion but here are a few thoughts:

The first option may be painful (and may not really be an option if you are not comfortable) but perhaps you can try to connect with this person on personal level on neutral ground. Go for coffee or lunch. There may be something else going on outside of work or perhaps they will open up about what is really disturbing them about the move to agile. You may get an opportunity to share about the expectations of your role and discuss ways for him to help you achieve those expectations. It’s a long-shot but worth a try.

The second option is for a manager to recognize the toxicity and move this person out of the organization. This may require a conversation between you and the reporting manager. It is ok to disagree and provide contrarian opinions but, from what it sounds like, being disrespectful and degrading is never acceptable. We want to give every one a chance but this person may not be right for agile (or any methodology for that matter).

The post It Only Takes One mentions how one person can create havoc on a team. While this post is directed toward managers who are currently managing disruptive people, there may be something there for you as well. Perhaps you can forward this post and the Agile, The Amplifier post to the manager to start your conversation with them.

With the third option, I can assume the person is still on the team and a manager hasn’t taken action. At this point, you can leave it to the team to provide enough peer pressure for them to change or to “vote them off the island” if the disrespectful behavior continues. Perhaps you can have a member of the team have a conversation with this person so they can share how this is affecting you (and the team).

The fourth option is for you to ask not be the Scrum Master on the team anymore. Especially if this situation is causing you stress or sleepless nights. It sounds like you are doing everything right as far as the mechanics of agile are concerned so I would hate for this situation to discourage you from being an amazing Scrum Master.

Hope this helps! Feel free to email me if you have any further questions.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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