Getting Better Because of Conflict Management: A Conflict-hating Scrum Master’s Story

By: Shelby Turk | Aug 12, 2020 |  Agile,  Agile Training,  Leadership,  Scrum,  ScrumMaster,  Team

The issue.


It makes me nervous just thinking about conflict in the workplace. It brings to the surface old insecurities, hurt feelings, and power struggles. Through my education there was a constant mantra–No one likes a pot-stirrer, don’t rock the boat, grin and bear it –here are a million different phrases, but they all boil down to basic conflict avoidance. Moving into the professional world it is repeated in different ways, often under the umbrella of creating good workplace culture. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life and it will find you in the workplace. 

 A close friend once told me that all conflict comes from an expectation not being met. At first, this seemed like a gross oversimplification and I blew it off as idle conversation but it stuck in my brain as I began a new chapter in my career, becoming a Certified Scrum Master. Servant leadership, being the buffer between my team and our stakeholders, helping set and meet goals… it all entranced me. I wanted to be good at my job and be liked within the team. Conflict wouldn’t have a place in my team, we would be a well-oiled machine running through Kanban tickets like a dream. All decisions would be unanimous and in the best interest of the company. Laughter would fill all our meetings. It would be like a Hallmark movie. 

Please, take a moment to laugh at how ridiculous that image was.

Introduce the next player in this story, March 2020 along with its trusty sidekick. Covid 19. Our team went from meeting daily in the office to meeting over Zoom, and the Scrum Master role went from an interesting idea to an official role in my life and a very important part of keeping my team together.

The solution.

Our team decided to split into two teams, consisting of six members each. The Scrum Master for the other team had more experience leading than I did, she is well respected in the company and is often referred to as the glue of our group. Those old insecurities kicked into high gear and fueled my determination to be the best. 

I did what most people do, I took to the internet to find ways to help guide my team through the upcoming months. I poured through articles on Scrum and Kanban, videos on women in leadership positions, dug into the Thomas-Killman Strategy, read David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, and reached out directly to my trusted coworkers for guidance. It became obvious that my fear of conflict was not going to do the team justice and I was going to have to step far out of my comfort zone.

I reached out to people in the company and practiced interactions–we ran through scenarios of conflict management and I tried different ways to handle it until they sounded natural. I worked with my husband on long monologues of reassurance, collaborative language, and repetitive goals. I forced myself to allow silence when it felt deafening to me and opened the door for criticism on my abilities to facilitate our retro and planning sessions. I put our goals high on the Kanban board so they wouldn’t be forgotten. I got used to playing the devil’s advocate and finding holes in plans that I thought were the best course of action.

Still, my team was struggling. Each day I saw the tension building and I felt the let down of the situation in my core. I expected to work hard and to have struggles, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this hard or this personal. The other team had their share of storming, but they were coming out on the other side. And the better they did, the more pressure I felt and the more personal I took each ceremony. I set my own expectations too high, and they were not being met on any front. 

After a particularly bad week, I packed up my car and drove to West Texas to see an old friend. The whole way there and throughout my stay, I contemplated if I was right for the Scrum Master role at all. Maybe this was a sign that I should run, and that my team would be better off without me involved. My friend allowed me to wallow for about a day, and then did what friends do best and brought me out of my own head. She reminded me why I was drawn to the role to begin with. She pointed out how many of the conflicts within the team had nothing to do with me, the work, or the company. The more I distanced myself from the conflict the easier it was to see how I could use the strategies I learned in each situation. I was no longer the center of the problem. I was an observer.

Slowly, it got better. We reorganized the teams to remove some of the conflict between members. Eventually, we compressed into one large team and I handed off the role of Scrum Master to my colleague. As she took over the role I continued to learn and observe how she handled conflict.  

What I Learned.

I still struggle with conflict management at work. My nerves creep in at every furrowed brow or sharp tone, but I’ve realized that as I continue in my career and through different roles I will look back on this time and use these lessons to grow. It’s not uncommon for the Scrum Master role to attract a helper personality like mine–the ones who want to be the fixer in a situation and shrink away from conflict. As those people, we have a lot of learning to do in order to successfully fill the role and serve our teams. Through research, continued education, and practice helpers can be some of the best Scrum Masters. Check out our Advanced Certified ScrumMaster workshop to learn how to level up your conflict management and facilitation skills. 

Thomas-Killman Conflict Resolution Strategy Cheat Sheet:

Avoiding – Sidestepping the conflict with the hope it will resolve itself and go away.

    • This was my go-to. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Laugh it off. Leave the room. Don’t make anyone know you are uncomfortable. This has its place in some aspects of life but in the virtual workspace, it created more stress and anxiety for me. I quickly scratched that one off my list of tactics.

Accommodating – Going out of your way to satisfy the other party’s concerns, often at your own expense. 

    • Another go-to! Take on extra tasks and work to make everyone else happy and feel heard. This is a short-term fix, but long term it leads to 12 hour-days, burn out, and sleep-deprived work. We all have to accommodate every day, it cannot be a one-way street to resolving conflict at work.

Compromising – Finding an acceptable resolution that partly satisfies both parties, but neither is fully satisfied.  

    • We learned this style as children and it has its place. The problem with compromise on a high-stress team is that someone gets the short end of the stick. When there are daily conflicts, that stick gets shorter and shorter until all that is left are disgruntled team members.

Competing – Trying to satisfy your desires at the expense of the other parties. 

    • Finish the project first. Make the most money. Have the highest NPS. Competition drives success and it can make a team soar. But it also can tear a team apart from the inside and negatively impact the whole business. Competition is only healthy if it’s checked frequently.

Collaborating – Finding a solution that entirely satisfies all parties involved.

    •  The golden ticket. The win-win-win model. Collaboration is wonderful, necessary, and needed in every part of life. It’s hard to achieve and requires all members to be willing to talk and to come to an agreement. For example, if Larry refuses to speak to John and John refuses to see Jessica’s point of view, the team cannot collaborate.

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