How to deal with Agile haters on the team

By: Doc List | Mar 02, 2016 |  Article,  Scrum,  ScrumMaster,  Team
Do you have an Agile hater on your Agile team?
Do you have a Debbie Downer on your Agile team?

Whether transient like sudden thunderstorms or constant like Eeyore’s rain cloud, negative attitudes can sap energy from those around them, particularly if it’s the latter. If there’s a Debbie Downer (or Agile hater) on your team, it’s important to have a plan to work with that person to find solutions before their negativity begins to affect team dynamics especially important during an Agile adoption.

Going back to the Satir model, any change causes productivity to decrease for a short amount of time. This is what Satir refers to as the chaos phase. This is normal. Eventually, productivity stabilizes and begins to improve if instigating the change was the right decision.

the Satir model -- heading Agile haters off in the resistance phaseIf the negative team member is vocal enough or in a leadership position, however, that team member can keep productivity low, or even cause the team to spiral deeper in the chaos phase. If this happens the adoption stalls or leadership can abandon the transformation altogether.

5-step plan to turn their frowns upside down

1. Learn

The first step is to learn about that person (the Debbie Downer). There may be extenuating and personal circumstances that could be affecting their attitude at work but you won’t know until you make the effort to understand them. Conduct a 1-on-1, ask a lot of questions, and listen to what they have to say (practice Active Listening). This time is a chance to learn about their motivations, concerns and frustrations regarding work and the Agile adoption. Listen for easy opportunities to help. For example, if the person complains of limited resources like a slow laptop, get him a new one. These quick wins will help gain his trust, and hopefully a better attitude.  

2. Rally

Agile haters want to resist change
Image courtesy of the Psych Scrivener

Do you know the story about the rider and the elephant? Jonathan Haidt wrote about this metaphor in The Happiness Hypothesis and so did Chip and Dan Heath in Switch.

In the image above, the rider is rational thinking while the elephant is emotional thinking. The rider sits on top of the elephant and mostly seems in control. However, at times if the elephant chooses to go one way, the rider has no choice but to follow. One way to change the elephant’s direction is to provide motivation for an alternate route.

Changing human behavior is the same principle. Create a goal that everyone, including the negative team member, can connect with at an emotional level. For example:

Goal 1: Implement Scrum

Goal 2: We need to get quicker feedback so that we can evolve products faster and be number one.

The second goal is the better alternative for a couple of reasons. First, goal #1 is a solution, not a goal. When you propose a solution, it provides an opportunity for doubters and naysayers to shoot it down. It also deprives the team and the individual of a sense of ownership, which is a powerful motivator. Goal #2 allows the team to work together and come up with a solution. The second goal also taps into feeling proud and competitive.

3. Reflect

After implementing practices to help meet the set goal, center the retrospective around the results. Did you accomplish your goal? Why or why not? All factors that affected the success or failure of the team in reaching that goal are now on the table, including negative attitudes of team members. However, the retrospective is not an intervention or an opportunity to focus on one team member. Keep the atmosphere positive by focusing on action items and solutions. Remember, brainstorming not blamestorming.

4. Respect

Sometimes, conflicts arise from personal reasons and we need to respect that. If the issue is between the team member and ScrumMaster, then it’s up to the ScrumMaster to find ways to earn their trust through servant leadership. If the situation is between other members of the team, then ScrumMasters need to gain agreement and consensus between opposing parties through conflict resolution. Remember that you can reach a team agreement about behaving respectfully, while you cannot mandate respect.

If it really is a personality issue, let the person know privately how you see that their actions are affecting the team. Give them a chance to address the issue and work through it. However, there are situations where the best solution is to escalate the issue.

One of our favorite tools is the STATE method from Crucial Conversations.

  • State your facts (facts are not interpretations or assumptions; facts are objective, observable, not your guess about their feelings or motivations)
  • Tell your story (how the facts affected you, what emotions arose in you, without blaming anyone else or assigning responsibility for those feelings)
  • Ask for others’ paths (how were they feeling? what was going on for them?)
  • Talk tentatively (don’t make assertions like “you were being XXX”, rather say things like “it seemed to me like maybe your were being XXX” – less confrontational, less likelihood of generating conflict or counterattack behavior)
  • Encourage testing (make it easy for the other person to ask, explore, and test)

We also love their “humanizing question”: Why would a rational, reasonable, decent human being do that? Asking the question gives you a moment to pause, gives the other person the benefit of the doubt, and changes your behavior from reaction to response.

5. Leverage

We have discussed ways to involve others through indirect tactics like retrospectives, but there are also direct ways to leverage the team. You can also take a poll or use Roman vote to get more people involved, activities that democratize the process of gathering data and making decisions. Democratizing the process levels the field, gives everyone an equal voice, and reduces conflict. In addition, if there are Agile champions involved, solicit their help privately. During a 1-on-1 ask them if it’s OK if they are asked to share their opinion in front of the group. The important thing is to get more opinions heard than just the Debbie Downers.

6. Educate

You’re 30 minutes into sprint planning. Suddenly, you hear, “This is stupid! Why are we even doing this?”

An awkward pause.

Good ScrumMasters will break the silence with team dialog and activities. They might ask the question “Do we want to address this now, or defer it to our retrospective?”  It’s challenging to allow an outspoken person (negative or otherwise) to “hijack” a meeting. Better to find an appropriate venue for the discussion. The ScrumMaster, as the one responsible for the process, is empowered to defer this kind of discussion rather than allowing one person to redirect the meeting.

The reason why knowledge is the foundation of the Path to Agility® is because education is key to getting buy-in, particularly during times of change. People need to understand why they are asked to do things differently. Going back to the rider and elephant, education can motivate the elephant to change course. If everyone is trained on Agile processes, then there should less likelihood of that question coming up. If it does, then other team members can answer or it’s an indicator to provide more training.

Dealing with Negative Neds and Debbie Downers can be difficult (can make life difficult) but finding solutions is not impossible. Communicate privately, earn their trust and use the team to educate others on the new processes.

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