We’ve all been there. Whether it’s our teammates at work, other students in a school project, or fellow volunteers in a service project, chances are you’ve come across someone you’ve found it difficult to work with. Possibly several people. Perhaps you even find your entire team infuriating!
The Scrum Framework is built on teamwork. As I teach Scrum training classes or work with Scrum teams in various organizations as an Agile Coach, I inevitably get asked some form of this question:
How can I possibly work with this person?
In my experience, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution or easy button, there are a few patterns that can really help us work with the people that tend to drive us a little nuts. While there are dozens of techniques to try, the three I tend to try first are: Relationship Building, Common Goals, and Candor
Who is this person?
When you feel embattled in conflict with someone, it’s probable that the very last thing on your mind is building a relationship with this person. You may be reading this very text looking for the quick fixes that help you deal with this person as little as possible. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there’s no quick fix here.
My first piece of advice is to get to know this person as a person. Spend some time intentionally and authentically getting to know the real person and helping them get to know the real you. Talk about things that have absolutely nothing to do with the work at hand. Ask about their home life. Find an interest to connect over. It can be anything: sports, movies, music, hobbies, family, kids, travel. Once you’re talking about non-work-related things, try taking it a level deeper: goals, career path, hopes, fears. Your goal is connect with this person as a fellow human being outside the context of the conflict. Help this along by getting out of the office and sharing a meal or some beverages if you can.
When we’re in conflict with someone, we tend to view them as a walking collection of opinions contrary to ours. We lose sight of the fact that this is a person with a life outside of work. They have a history, a family, and a story. So bring up that TV show you heard them talking about. As they tell you about their favorite episode of Desperate Programmers of Silicon Valley, hopefully you will both find a way to connect with each other as individuals, and then be able to return to the conflict with the foundation of a better relationship.
A note to the very task-oriented and not-so-relationship-oriented: this might feel like it’s wasting time. Resist the urge to skip past the fluffy stuff and “get to the real work”. If you are in unhealthy conflict and you find it hard to get anything done with them, this is your real work. You don’t have to be this person’s best friend. But in my experience, nothing turns unhealthy conflict into healthy conflict by connecting with someone as a real person and building a healthy working relationship.
What are we doing here?
Before you jump right to the specific point (or points) of contention, ask yourself some key questions. Start with, “why am I working with this person in the first place?” Don’t stop at, “because my boss said I have to.” What are you trying to achieve together? When we’re in stressful environments, we tend to focus more on the immediate minutia, and lose sight of the big picture. Take some time to zoom out.
Spend some time thinking about the common goals you share with the other person. If that seems like too difficult a task, start with your goals. Think high level. These could include things like: develop an excellent product, serve our community, grow our understanding of a topic, support a cause we believe in, or build a healthy team. Imagine a period of time in the near-ish future - say 6 weeks to 6 months - and ask yourself, “What do I want to be true at that point? What are we trying to accomplish?” Once you’ve got a short list of even 2-3 goals, find some that the two of you share, or even some that you hope to share, and talk about them with the other person you’re struggling to work with.
Don’t rush this step. Your overall goals form the foundation of your collaboration. Even if the goals seem obvious, spend time with them and dig into them. When I work with product development teams, the quick answer is often, “To finish this project.” That’s an okay start, but there’s more to unpack there. Why is this product even being developed? To solve a problem? To make our customers happy? To make the world a better place? And is that the only goal? What about the state of our team and work environment? When I work as a Scrum Master or Coach, I often tell my teams, “If we deliver an awesome product that our stakeholders love, but we are a miserable, burnt-out, unhealthy team - that's not success.” It's not enough to hit the finish line. Working well together is one of the goals. Don't focus so much on the destination that you lose sight of how you get there.
Hey Look, an Elephant
I have no idea how the phrase, “the elephant in the room” came to be. I’ve seen many elephants in my life. None of them were in rooms.
I have, unfortunately, been in many situations in which there is a metaphorical elephant in the room that no one is willing to talk about. The obvious point of contention we are dancing around, but not really addressing. Everyone knows there’s a problem. No one is willing to speak up and just enter into the difficult and often awkward conversation.
The antidote to this sidestepping behavior can be phrased many ways: being kind rather than nice, speaking the truth in love, or in a word, candor. There are many books and articles written about candor in the workplace, and they all unpack the subject more deeply than I can here. So I will summarize my thoughts on candor by sharing what I coach myself to do in these situations: Go for the sigh.
You know that sigh. I’m not talking about the sigh of exasperation that escapes when you’re approaching the third hour of what was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting. I mean the sigh of relief that almost inevitably escapes one’s lungs when someone finally has the guts to say out loud what everyone is thinking. Be the person who can muster up the courage to address what needs to be addressed by kindly, gently, and lovingly speaking the truth.
Lean into Scrum Values
Although they weren’t added to the Scrum Guide until 2016, the Scrum Values have long been the difference between teams “doing Scrum” by going through the motions, and Scrum teams that flourish in the framework. If you’re working on a Scrum Team (and frankly, even if you’re not), each of the Scrum Values can provide guidance when working with someone you find difficult.
- Courage - Lean into the awkward conversation, even when your instincts tell you to run.
- Focus - Don’t let the conflict devolve into gossip and a general dark cloud; use it to learn, grow, and move forward as a team.
- Commitment - Dedicate yourself to being the person who will point out what needs to be pointed out in order to help the team grow.
- Respect - Speak the truth you feel needs to be spoken, but do so in a way that honors the person. Treat their opinion as valuable, even when you disagree.
- Openness - Speak plainly about what’s going on, rather than keeping it hidden or ignoring it.
Give it Time
Finally, give yourself and the other person ample time to grow. If you’re anything like me, you may need to repeat this to yourself often. Surface level differences of opinion may be resolved quickly, but deep interpersonal conflicts take time to resolve. In fact, the tension may be one that must be continually managed rather than fully resolved.
Treating the person as a person, focusing on common goals, and speaking candidly yet kindly are three great places to start, but there are many other tactics to try. As any other endeavor with unknowns and risk, be transparent about your progress, inspect how it’s going, and adapt as you go.
Ideas to try when you find someone difficult to work with:
Get to know the real person, not just their opinions.
Zoom out and focus on goals that you both share.
Be willing to point out the obvious and step into uncomfortable conversations.
Look to the Scrum Values: Courage, Focus, Commitment, Respect, Openness
Give it time — a healthy relationship of any sort requires bidirectional patience