Coaching a vulnerable agile team

Coaching a vulnerable agile team

A development team without a sense of belonging or psychological safety isn't a team. It's a group of people doomed to fail the task(s) at hand. So here we're discussing the need for a team to feel like a team.

TL;DR: What started as a newsletter topic turned into a full post. It's a topic that hits incredibly close to me and should never be underestimated. A team's psychological safety will make or break (even destroy) a project and a project manager's reputation if not handled correctly.

Have you ever been part of a project team where one or more members or managers have a habit of belittling others? Or someone's spoken idea is cut off only to be finished with something like, "what are you, stupid?"

I've been on teams like this. I've led teams like this (with varying results). When a team displays these behaviors, you can bet there's an underlying issue with psychological safety within the ranks. Generally speaking, the team is already broken when the project manager finds out. While it's not impossible to recover, it can be an arduous- if not expensive- recovery process.

The topic of this week's point came from a friend I served with while in the Coast Guard. They, too, were a program manager in the Emergency Management world. I got an email the week before last asking for advice on handling two members who, while critical to the project, were also the cause of low morale and general discontent with the eight-person team (see above for examples of their behavior). This has left the remaining six members vulnerable, stifling any real progress or innovation- the heart of agile project management.

There was a time when I would have straight up said, "replace them." However, those were my days in the service where we could do that. Now we're playing by different rules. Not a bad change, just different.

Here's my take on why our team's psychological safety is so important and how one can indeed overcome such significant obstacles.

The necessity of a team's psychological safety.

The job gets done when a team feels safe in their work environment. There's usually very little fanfare about it. However, when they don't, it can spell disaster across several lines: quality of code, timeliness, unnecessary rework, and morale.

If you've ever been in a position where you felt stuck and unable to change it for the better, you've lacked psychological safety. The Center for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety in the workplace as,

It’s a shared belief held by [team members] that others on the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for speaking up.

It may seem trivial to some that little things like being embarrassed can be so damaging to the individual. At one time in my life, I may have agreed with you; however, I've been on the receiving end of not feeling safe in my job and constantly worrying if I would be the next one fired for speaking up (as the PM). It will take its toll on one's sense of worth and belonging.

If you were always in fear of being reprimanded for an opinion that may not align with others in your team or the management staff, I could say with nearly 100% confidence that you won't be working at peak performance. Your contributions to the whole would be noticed, and the consensus may be that you don't belong.

However, consider the above for a moment. Pretend you're the project manager and you've noticed that one or more of your members are no longer producing the kind of work you'd expect (or what they once did). Or, perhaps, you've taken over a team with a few struggling members. If this is the case, don't do anything rash. Instead, it's time to look and listen to where the issue(s) may be.  

It's easy to dismiss this as people being lazy or bad at their job. And while that indeed can be the case, you need to look into why this is the case. Perhaps go so far as to conduct a postmortem into the team, as Tim Clark notes in his article, Agile Doesn't Work Without Psychological Safety, from earlier this year. He noticed the signs while sitting in (as an observer) on standard Scrum meetings,

As it became more emotionally and politically expensive to speak up, they gradually stopped doing it. They sabotaged their agility by punishing each other’s vulnerability.

Without the feeling of belonging or being able to safely (and confidently) speak their mind with team members or leadership, the individual will become a wallflower doing the bare minimum to keep their job. This will make for a sad team.

How to overcome the obstacles of an unsafe team?

First, this can be an arduous journey; however, as a project manager, or as the case may be, the Scrum Master, it's your job to protect the team.

A million ways exist to create an incredible team, yet it takes only one person to undo it all. Here are some examples of how I might handle some issues and some advice I gave to my friend asking about their team issue.

As the project manager, you already know what's happening and don't deal with it. This is a non-starter for me. As the project manager, whether on a software team, construction team, or any team, it is your job to hold the team together. The PM is akin to a parent in this situation; if you notice some mischief, it's best to stop it NOW; if you don't, it'll be ten times harder to deal with later.

If you're willing to allow this kind of behavior on your team, then I have no remorse for you when your project is a bust or you're on the receiving end of an HR investigation.

An experienced member(s) is openly questioning others' opinions or questions. This is where my friend was when they wrote me. This is a hard one, especially when the involved individuals are considered "essential" to the project.

  1. My first question was whether they talked privately with the two individuals. Without addressing it directly first, you might not have any recourse at a later date.
  2. Remember, no team member is better than any other, regardless of experience or knowledge. For some, this may be a hard pill to swallow. But as a project manager, you must look at the whole and not just a slice of the team.   A discussion needs to happen with next-level managers. You need to share with the management team the issues without sugar-coating anything. There needs to be a clear and concise discussion on the problems and what's to be done if the behavior doesn't change.
  3. My advice is if the managers don't want to make any changes, and you feel that without changes, things are going to continue the way they are, it may be time to look for a new position. I don't say this lightly either; however, nobody can keep moving forward with a team that can't work together.

The issues stem from management. In my own experience, this is more likely than not where the problem of a team's psychological safety issues arises from. When a member is scolded or scoffed at for their opinions by any management staff member, the bruise left is worse than if it were a co-worker. Like above, putting a stop to it starts with a one-on-one, then escalates.

Suppose you find yourself as a team member or the PM in a situation with a demeaning manager, and the executive team doesn't resolve the issue. If this is the case, it's not worth your mental stability to try and "suck it up," trust me. I've been there, and I've tried doing just that. If the issue isn't resolved immediately, it's time to walk.

The only saving grace to all this is that most teams, project managers, and companies I currently deal with remind me that it's not always doom-n-gloom. But, unfortunately, it seems like it may never end when you're in the middle of it, even more so if you're on the receiving end. And if you stay in your current position, that may, in fact, be true.

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