Broken team performance: conflict management case study

She was a bit strange. In any case, different than all of us. She wouldn’t even care to go out for a beer after the working hours. You know, just an IT girl, one of those shy girls who seem to get back home right after work. – said one of the team members in the individual interviews we made to understand what had actually happened. – Oh, she didn’t really have much sense of humor, not at all. She didn’t seem to fancy the jokes our team lead made. Can you imagine? She criticized them, openly! – said another one. What did she especially criticize? – Oh, all the jokes about Jews and women at work. A bit oversensitive. – was the answer of the team member, an IT guy who seemed to have perhaps enjoyed the jokes. Anyway, there were made by the team leader, so the criticism was not welcome, we understood from one more interview.

It did not actually matter much whether the team leader was Lithuanian or Latvian. The team was struggling. There seemed to be an unidentified secret, as if no one knew what actually had happened. Who exactly had been involved? – it seemed no one knew for sure. She left a few months before, in any case, having called the company to court for mobbing at work, a great scandal. There were very few jokes in the air right now. The small talk almost disappeared, and the working room was usually filled with an uneasy silence. As if there was a shadow lying on the team spirit, the unknown conflict from the past. The performance had never been so bad. The Client complained. Most of the team members started seriously considering changing the employer.

We all needed to come to terms with the past, learn from it whatever we can, and start looking into the future. They needed to understand, learn from mistakes, and start performing as a team.

Individual interviews with every team member, the team leader, as well as the unit managers provided much insight into what actually had happened. Now we needed to help the team to put it on the table, and get rid of the unspoken secrets which were ruining the team life. Mistakes had been committed, that was for sure. Exchanging facts on what actually took place was already a relief. – That’s how it happened. – realized some team members. – That’s what happened! – understood the others, who were not directly involved into the situation, some were even completely new to the team but still felts its heavy atmosphere. – How can we learn from it? What does it show to us? – The shy IT girl had actually been the bravest one to oppose the team leader. Not really to Oppose, just to state her own borders. She was the only one who dared to say openly what she felt. It might have been a coincidence that the jokes were about minorities at work. In any case, she became an important buffer for all team. But in a team whose other members did everything to please their team leader, the burden of isolation meant becoming a scapegoat.

SCRUM teams are supposed to manage themselves, and to solve conflicts within their own capacities. Yet this team had lacked the capacities to handle the situation properly. It was their own striking conclusion in the face to face team session lead by two ETTA consultants, and one of the big Aha!s in the process. The magic of self-organized SCRUM worked only as long as the relationships among the team members were healthy. The down-to-earth and fact-oriented IT guys needed to admit that something might have slipped their attention.

Lessons were not learned in vain. The team members established a working contract how they like to work in the team, and they appointed a SCRUM-Watch function, a person whose role was to observe not the working outcomes, but the process of work. The session ended with a big relief, good understanding, and hopeful plans for the future. After all, they all had got used to this place, and it was a decent company. An important step was made to establish the trust anew.

A conflict lurking from the past for so many months needs time full of attention until it can actually be regarded to have become just ‘a teaching anecdote’. A follow-up session a month later would have stabilized the process, and we could have supported the team to stay on the right track. Yet the budgeting decision was on cutting the costs down, and the process effect was put in danger. We can only hope that the team members actually held their plans drafted so optimistically in the face to face session, and that the SCRUM-watch knew actually what (s)he needed to pay attention to.