How to Resolve Conflicts in Agile Work Environments

14 July 2023

Veronika Nedashkovskaya

Content Manager

Conflicts in agile methodology are seen as inevitable. It’s not about avoiding them (spoiler: it’s impossible) but about resolving them effectively while keeping the atmosphere of trust and comfortable, stress-free working conditions for each team member. Our Scrum Master, Anastasiia Musil, shares valuable insights on how to resolve conflicts in an agile team.

Schematic drawing of two puzzle pieces with "conflict" and "resolution" matching each other.

The Nature of a Conflict

What is the basis for most team conflicts? At the basic level, a conflict is nothing more than a disagreement over approaches. Due to the nature of self-organization, agile teams are more likely to have internal conflicts than those following “conventional” methods of work arrangement. Since agile teams don’t have that one role that makes all decisions, it becomes a matter of consensus on different approaches and points of view. Besides properly established communication processes, there are other aspects of conflict management Scrum Masters and project managers should consider.

5 Levels of Conflict

There are five levels of conflict in agile methodology as they were coined by Lyssa Adkins. 

Level 1: Problem to Solve
At the first level, the team is interested in finding out what went wrong and how to fix it. The members exchange information and cooperate. Nobody refers to past issues. Any misunderstanding encourages honest questions. It’s a level of constructive disagreements inside high-performance teams.
Level 2: Disagreement
Self-protection becomes as significant as finding the problem solution. The transparency level reduces; the team members speak separately to each other and often don’t share all information. The atmosphere is not yet hostile but much less comfortable. Facts are no longer the focus of communication, which leads to confusion.
Level 3: Contest
Level three is all about winning. People pick sides and use emotions to team up with other selected colleagues. Old, unresolved issues come into play and trigger large-scale conflicts. The team members start accusing each other and speculating about other people’s opinions. At this stage, people usually resist any idea of peaceful conflict resolution.
Level 4: Crusade
At level four, solely resolving the issue is not sufficient. The team splits into factions, and people are no longer identified by their ideas or performance but by their affiliation with a fraction. People lose the sense of community and team spirit. Many are sure that firing other team members or quitting is the only possible solution.
Level 5: World War
If level three is about winning, level 5 is about destroying the “enemy”. At this point, a constructive resolution is no longer possible. The only thing you can do is isolate hostile team members from each other.
Understanding the very nature of conflicts between team members helps Scrum Masters (and executives, too) navigate them constructively and minimize the negative impact on the team’s productivity.

Our Expert Insights

Q: How should you form a team to avoid conflicts? Is it even possible?

Anastasiia: Conflicts are one of the stages of team development. I don’t think you should avoid them. Let’s look at Tuckman’s theory of team development. After everyone has passed the stage of forming, the team gets into a storming, the phase when people take off their masks and start having a beef with each other. At this stage, the Scrum Master’s main task is to make everything fully transparent — to give everyone the chance to be heard and help the team members exchange opinions. 

It gives the ground for forming the team rules, which will then serve as a basis for solving conflict situations. I’m not talking about conflicts that involve inappropriate, toxic behavior. It also happens, though. However, mature teams usually have a high level of self-management. People are able to give on-time feedback or even say goodbye to the team members who behave contrary to the team norms.

Tuckman’s stages of team development
The psychologist Bruce Tuckman first mentioned the stages of forming, storming, morning, and performing in his 1965 paper Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. He used them to describe the sequence of steps that teams go through on the path to high performance. He later added a fifth stage, adjourning. The approach is widely used today, often referred to as Tuckman’s team development model.

Most team members are cheerful and friendly. Some are concerned they don’t fully understand the job they will do. Others are excited about the challenges ahead. People try to get to know each other better.

People begin to move beyond the boundaries established at the forming stage. The differences in employees’ approaches and styles become evident and cause issues. Some members challenge leadership and authority or question the company’s goals. Many teams fail at the storming stage.

At the norming stage, people begin to resolve issues, recognize the strengths of other colleagues, and respect leadership. Now team members know each other better and can communicate, seek help, and provide constructive feedback. People better understand the mission of the team and their responsibilities. The transition from storming to norming takes time and can turn around as new challenges appear.

The team reaches this stage when there is no disagreement in the workflow. The team is driven by a shared goal. The structure and processes are already well-established, while the leaders delegate most of the work and focus on employees’ personal and professional development. It’s easy to be part of the team.

Many teams reach this stage sooner or later. For example, project teams work together for a fixed period only, and even established teams can be disbanded due to organizational restructuring. This phase can be painful for employees who don’t cope with changes easily or those who have close working relationships with colleagues.  

Q: How do you resolve conflicts within the team? Are there any lifehacks? 

Anastasiia: Talk about them openly. I’m deeply convinced that if people in a team can give feedback to each other, they can overcome the conflict on their own. 

As a Scrum Master, I organized a club for leadership development in one of my teams. We read books there. In one of the books (No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention), the emphasis is on the radical openness culture. We embraced the idea of honest feedback, started giving it to each other, and eventually applied these principles outside our club.

There are situations when someone in the team doesn’t like a colleague’s behavior and becomes toxic and demotivated. At this point, it’s vital to identify this hidden conflict that can later lead to sabotage and poor communication and negatively affect our goal. Sometimes I can make the feedback anonymous and pass it on to another person in the form of a recommendation. But ideally, we should strive to teach people to communicate with each other even in challenging situations. Sometimes we rehearse how a conversation can go, look for wording to stay constructive, and communicate our thought.

A conflict is a manageable issue. It’s bad when conflicts become hidden and incrementally destroy the team from within. However, you can spot them on time if you establish contact with each team member and create a trusting atmosphere.

Conflicts are necessary to set boundaries and create the rules that will define the team’s behavior in the future. My job as a Scrum Master is to help the team get out of the confrontation, start a conversation and find solutions to the problem.

Rocketech Philosophy

Conflict management in agile software development is more important than it may seem at first. The Rocketech team consists exclusively of middle+ and senior-level specialists. Although seasoned professionals usually have the highest levels of self-organization and create mature teams, the differences in opinions and working styles may become crucial.

That’s why resolving internal team conflicts by following Scrum best practices is one of our operations priorities. We are aware of common conflicts occurring in Scrum teams and ensure efficient and fast resolutions. This way, we embrace the positive sides of issue settlements and don’t let anything negatively affect our teams’ performance and well-being.

Have questions about our approach and internal processes? We are happy to answer them.

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