Building Trust within Teams

June 6, 20134 min

There was a recent post on the Certified ScrumMasters group on LinkedIn about what would be the best way for Team members share negative feedback after a request from “management” that Team members to put their names next to their negative comments.  The speaker indicated Team members were reluctant to put their names on these types of comments and looking for techniques which support the Team and management.  What an interesting day-to-day challenge for any ScrumMaster – protecting the integrity of  the self-organizing Team with the desire of management to be “helpful”.

I understand the desire by management to want more information about negative feedback (who even knows what that means?) and I assume that management is only asking to be helpful.  A sign of good management is a healthy interest in identifying impediments, eliminating them and making sure they stay eliminated.  However, I have a concern that in this instance, a seemingly “helpful” management request begins to unravel the safety established by the Retrospective.  This request is also a great example of how the ScrumMaster role is much more than a day-to-day administrator of the Team.  A powerful ScrumMaster must also spend time educating the Stakeholders about Scrum, what is their role in the framework, while protecting the Team’s ability to self-organize.

I feel the reluctance of people to put their names next to negative information points to a sign that the people on the Team either do not trust management and\or their peers.  It is hard to tell in the scenario described on LinkedIn, so I will address both beginning with the Team.

Sometimes people do not want to offer criticisms of one another (especially in writing) because they may not trust the intentions behind the person offering the feedback.  To be accepting of this type of feedback, you have to really believe someone has your best interest at heart and is not giving you this feedback to make you look bad in front of your peers.

There are a few things a ScrumMaster can do to increase trust within the Team.  The easiest thing is to increase the number of casual, social interactions among the Team members – Team lunches, coffee breaks or even just taking a walk together around the building from time-to-time.  Casual social interactions increase the number of opportunities to learn more about one another and hear what is on people’s mind.  These short (optional – and the key is optional) events are a good way for people to relax and interact at work, but not do work.  Be sure to include the Product Owner, too – they want to get to know the Team members, as well.

The ScrumMaster can also leverage the Retrospective as a way to help people get to know one another professionally and personally.  Here are some ideas that have worked well for me in the past.

  1. Journey Lines – ask people to explain their career path using Journey Lines to help people learn more about their colleagues backgrounds.  I first read about this in Lyssa Adkins’s book Coaching Agile Teams.
  2. Locate Strengths – Conduct paired interviews using Locate Strengths to help members of the Team have deeper conversations about what strengths they bring to the Team.  I used this activity from Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby & Diana Larsen to great effect when half the Team was laid off at one client.
  3. Circle of Questions – another great tool from Agile Retrospectives and the goal is to aid the Team in learning more about one another by asking each another what their aspirations are for the Team.  Be sure to read the comments on the link provided on some guidelines to run this successfully.

Now returning to how I might respond to management.  I would tell my management what is going on – people are reluctant to put their names on negative feedback.  I would suggest that this may be a sign the Team might not trust them.  I would ask the leaders if they agree with my assessment (it is possible they have a different conclusion).  In order to get into an interesting dialogue, I would ask these managers to imagine why they think people are reluctant to comply with this request, how they might feel if they were asked to do the same thing and what sort of past behaviors from management (or the Team) might be causing this reluctance.  The key here is not to dwell too much on the past, but develop some empathy about why the Team members are hesitating and to begin the dialogue on what sort of behaviors managers could start doing that will foster more trust.

In addition, I would emphasis with the managers the purpose of the Retrospective, who attends and reinforce that what is shared is a decision for the Team.  I would explain that establishing trust and a sense of safety is essential for the Retrospectives to work.  That allowing the Team to own the Retrospective supports their self-organization and responsibility.  I would also offer to facilitate a special retrospective\lessons learned\dialogue between the Team and management on any topic the managers would like discuss with the Teams face-to-face.