Conflict is double-edged sword. On one hand it provides the necessary fuel for teams to make sound decisions. On the other, it is a mechanism for resentment and team dysfunction. As Scrum Masters, how do we help our teams navigate conflict in a way that encourages the positive while mitigating the negative?
First, we must make a distinction between the different types of conflict. Researches identify three types: 1) affective, 2) task, 3) process. Affective conflict is what most people would consider “bad” conflict and involves disagreements about personal issues such as political affiliation. Task and process conflict are more professional and represent disagreements concerning what should be done and how to do it. For simplicity and “stickiness” I will refer to affective conflict as personal conflict and task and process conflict collectively as professional conflict.
It is part of our common corporate discourse to believe that some forms of conflict are bad (personal conflict) whereas others are good (professional conflict). However, both types of conflict feed into each other in complex ways. A personal conflict will undoubtedly lead to increased professional conflict. It’s also reasonable to expect particularly heated professional conflicts to leave some lasting scars that create personal conflicts.
When it comes to leveraging the benefits of professional conflict without falling into the trap of personal conflict, there are five straightforward strategies we can employ.
- Quash personal conflicts as soon as possible. Personal conflict is never valuable and the longer it lingers, the more resentment will build.
As a Scrum Master, teach the team about the toxicity of personal conflict. Be particularly mindful of retrospectives.
- Remember that professional disagreement is not a personal attack. The whole team is responsible for creating a space of psychological safety where members can disagree openly and respectfully.
As a Scrum Master, coach the Scrum values and call out harmful language or callous behavior.
- Ensure that individuals properly understand their roles. When roles are ambiguous, it increases the likelihood of both personal and professional conflict.
As a Scrum Master, lean heavily on the Scrum framework. It is very clear about team roles and responsibilities.
- Work hard to build trust. When team members trust each other, the odds that professional conflicts lead to personal conflicts are reduced.
As a Scrum Master, be genuine in your role as a servant leader. Altruism and authenticity are essential for building trust. Lead by example.
- Be sensitive to team size. Small teams increase collaboration, but increased collaboration means increased conflict. Large teams experience less overall conflict than small teams.
As a Scrum Master, help your organization understand the interaction between team size and conflict. Lead decision makers in constant inspection and adaption around this topic to right-size your team composition.
George, B., Erikson, T., Parhankangas, A. (2016). Preventing dysfunctional conflict: Examining the relationship between different types of managerial conflict in venture capital-backed firms. Venture Capital, 18(4), 279-296.