Resolve conflicts in Agile Teams for Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches

Last updated on: Published by: Asad Safari 4

Almost 9 years ago, when I started my first scrum mastery role, I encountered one of my tough challenges, conflict resolution. Two members of the development team(Ali and Vahid) separately told me, we can not work together anymore. 

  • “Why do you think you can no longer work with him? ” I asked them. 
  • Ali: “He doesn’t respect me… he is a brilliant jerk… I could not be able to work with him anymore”.
  • “Ali is not a good team member, he is so lazy, and he does not care about the team… I don’t like to work with him… ”, Vahid told me.

I held a shared meeting with both of them, to help them to resolve conflict. Everything went as badly as possible. This meeting was like the first presidential debate 2020 between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Attacking, Interrupting, Not listening. I was like Chris Wallace at this meeting, without any impact. Ali left the team at the end of the week. 

https://www.bbc.com/pidgin/tori-54352004

This bad event was a trigger for me to start improving my conflict resolution skill. Especially this kind of workplace and personal conflicts. If your team members have a conflict in the decision-making process, you can use easily facilitation techniques, but personal conflicts are so difficult. A conflict is a situation when the interests, needs, goals, or values of involved parties interfere with one another. 

In these 9 years and while coaching almost 20 different teams, I have experimented with many practices to resolve conflicts, but I want to suggest an effective one that worked for me in different situations.

Ladder of Inference

Ladder of inference, developed by a former Harvard professor Chris Argyris. Experts using the Ladder of Inference refer to “travel” on the ladder as an important way to obtain valuable insight into how a belief or action may have developed. The practice of traveling on the ladder also provides a rich opportunity to articulate the core of those inferences with other individuals and groups, particularly ones that lend themselves to vastly different conclusions and the escalation of the conflict. 

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/185280972158957444/

It’s a really easy framework to learn and adopt it as your favorite conflict management tool. Let me describe it with my own story. In our story, Vahid believed that “Ali is not a good team member, he is so lazy” (Beliefs) So, In meetings, he did not show respect to Vahid (Actions). On the opposite side, Vahid developed a belief about Ali for himself too and reacted to him.

Learning to “travel back down” the ladder to revisit, articulate, and communicate the original data each group holds in a certain light is key to increasing meaningful communication between members of a group or team while simultaneously managing conflicts more effectively. 

The key point is that, helps them to revisit or be aware of the root of their current beliefs. 

Let’s travel back down the ladder in action:

  1. We are in a planning meeting, Vahid is trying to explain a concept to the team to help them to break it down a complex task into small tasks, there are 6 team members there…. (Observation)
  2. Ali is starting to check his phone (Selected Data by Vahid)
  3. His attention is on his phone (Meaning)
  4. He is not paying attention to me (assumption)
  5. He did not care about the team (Conclusion)
  6. He is a bad team member (Belief)
  7. Ignore the Vahid at the during of this meeting (Action)

https://gelinasjames.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/img_3822.png

When we developed a belief about somebody, next time, we will just select data about him based on our current beliefs. Beliefs act as a filter for us, we did not see things that we do not intend to see. 

Our beliefs affect the data we select next time. So, After this planning meeting, Vahid just will see some actions of Ali that prove his belief. It is not interesting? More evidence will cause stronger beliefs and stronger conflict. It’s a loop.

Another big mistake is that You as a facilitator, try to just pay attention to actions and try to manipulate them. Lets, say Vahid, you should show respect to him, but Vahid created a strong belief about Ali that he is not a good team member. And the same thing happened to Ali too.

What we should do? Travel back down the ladder. 

As a facilitator, you should help them to travel back down the ladder. What happened that you think he is not a good team member? “He did not care about the team…”. Can you tell us why do you think he does not care about the team?

You can start this session by explaining the ladder of inference framework, you can use your own stories too, it creates good empathy. For example, I always use my story with my wife and how we developed a wrong belief about each other. She thought I did not care for her anymore, and I thought She is just a murmur… And how we used this ladder to understand what created this kind of belief. For example, Checking the phone at home when we are eating lunch, caused she developed this belief…

This image is a great example to show your team member.

https://cdn.storyboardthat.com/storyboard-srcsets/anna-warfield/loi.webp

People develop beliefs in just seconds by some limited and selected data. And these beliefs influence their actions and view of the world in the future. We should help them to be aware of the root of these beliefs, observe new data and facts, and maybe develop new beliefs.

Don’t hesitate to share your experience here with me 🙂

Best Regards

Asad Safari


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4 Replies to “Resolve conflicts in Agile Teams for Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches”

  1. Javad

    Dear Asad, thanks for interesting article. It would be more useful if you expand the solution based on the case, for example how to travel back down the ladder? Do you think they just need to become aware of the root of the conflict or misunderstanding? Is enough? Don’t you think people’s reaction might be different person by person?

    1. Asad Safari Post author

      How you said, this is dependent on the context and person. I will try to write about this topic with more details in the future post.

  2. Mahmoud

    Dear Asad,
    Thanks for sharing your lessons learned with us. I think it is a really helpful framework for personal and professional areas of conflict. I used a simpler version of this framework as explained in clean language. Recently, I could avoid a misunderstanding becoming a real issue using this framework. Someone in my team thought that the HR team lead intentionally disrespected her, as they ignored her request for an urgent meeting. I walked her through the ladder as you explained. I asked her to explain what she observed, how she interpreted her observation, what she concluded and how she felt and acted as a result. It really rised her consciousness and not only made her rethink her conclusions, but made room for alternative narratives and interpretations.
    Your story made the framework even more clear to me. Thanks a lot…

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