This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation on the right to jump between the various chapters of the story.
Six weeks after the start, patterns start to solidify in team Phoenix. Let’s continue the story of Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim.
The sun outside the office building shines brightly. Max exits the stairwell and enters the working floor. He passes the area where most of the team is seated. He smiles and whistles upbeat as he walks by. Team members not concentrating heavily smile back and wish him a good morning. Max takes place at his desk at the far end. He feels prepared for the pivotal meeting about to take place. It took him a full two days to prepare, so he has high expectations.
Going through his notes, Max reads some of the comments he received from team members over the past two weeks: “I am unsure of what the goals are”, “I don’t think we are moving in the right direction”, “I really think we need to completely refactor the back-end”. The list is long, Max realizes. However, he believes he found a balance that will really draw the team together. Max ponders over his plans briefly and then decides to grab a coffee.
He walks over to the pantry. Before he turns the corner, he catches a few words of a conversation between Tim and Sally standing near the coffee machine.
“Max just doesn’t seem to get it, you know.” Sally says. “Last week Friday he more or less ambushed me, asking all kinds of questions about what I think we should be doing. I had no time to prepare or even think about it.”
“It seems like he is just pushing his own agenda.” Tim responds. “Oh well, we’ll see what the meeting brings. How was your weekend by the way?”
Max grinds his teeth. Breathe, just breathe. The chatter continues. He waits half a minute, then turns the corner. He almost runs into Tim, who is dashing towards the toilet. As Max approaches the coffee machine, Sally is about to pass him.
“How are you Sally?”
“I am fine.”
She gives him a brief glance while she walks past him. Max feels an uneasy tingle in his gut, takes a deep breath once more and gets his coffee.
Laptop and coffee in hand, Max enters the still empty meeting room to prepare his presentation. He brought some prints of his plans. He tries to affix them to the wall, but the tape does not hold. His prints flutter to the carpet. Frustrated he throws the tape on the ground. Breathe, Max. Slowly he puts up the prints using more tape this time around.
Fifteen minutes later, everyone has trickled into the meeting room.
“Tim, can you close your laptop please?” Max asks as he starts the meeting.
“I am just taking notes”, Tim replies.
“It’s best if we have everyone’s full attention in the room.”
Tim closes his laptop with a loud thud, shrugs and starts to stir his coffee audibly for a few seconds. He puts the coffee down, and then sits back in his chair, arms folded.
Max opens the meeting. “Alright, I heard you guys on the app not being up to par. So, over the past week I collected as much input as I could from you and a few key stakeholders.”
“Firstly, I understand we are understaffed. So, I have hired an extra senior developer to join the team, a contractor. His name is Joseph and he will start next Monday.”
A mix of puzzled and relieved faces look back at Max.
“This is what you wanted right?” He asks.
“Yes, but … did he do a coding test?” Tim responds.
Alice gives Tim a sharp look, then adds: “Did anyone in the team actually talk with Joseph?”
“Uhm, good points,” Max responds. “I will arrange introductions. I am absolutely confident it will be a harmonious cooperation though.”
Sally looks at Tim, they both roll their eyes.
Max continues: “I understand we may need more time to work on the basics. Let me present my idea on how I think we should tackle this.”
Max spends some time outlining his plans pointing to the prints he put up. To appease the team he explains there will be time to refactor the front-end and deployment. Nobody reacts to this. Max pauses briefly. Maybe they just need some time to let it sink in. He continues, with a little less confidence, and elaborates on his plans to develop quite some new features. They’ll react to that, Max thinks. However, Sally is not even looking at the prints on the wall anymore, and, goddammit, Tim has opened his laptop again.
After rattling uninterrupted for another fifteen minutes, Max realizes that nobody is saying anything. Nobody. Max’s hands start to tremble, his voice becomes raspy. I need a break. He picks up his cup and gulps down the last sip of lukewarm coffee. Just breathe.
Some Questions Please
“What do you guys think?”
Total silence. Some team members make brief eye contact and then look away, others look at their laptop or out of the window. Starting to sweat, Max feels his heart racing and, to his own embarrassment, he blushes. Did I just talk to a damn wall?
He looks at Sally, who remains silent. Alice leans forward and decides to dip a toe in the ice cold water.
“Wouldn’t it be better perhaps to focus on fewer features?”
“Even fewer?” Tim interrupts. “I think most problems can be fixed by just moving to a different cloud setup, then we can actually move on and start to roll out some of this overdue stuff quickly and …”
“Look, wait, guys,” Max interrupts. “Let’s just get along here.”
Max’s left hand starts to twitch. He quickly hides both hands behind his back.
“Tim, we already discussed the cloud setup. This is the third time you raise it. I am surprised you’re holding onto the idea. I thought we agreed. It’s not a priority right now, or ever for that matter.”
“Whatever …” Tim replies, eyes rolling.
“Alice, I already had to scrap half of the suggestions I got, so what you’re seeing really is a compromise already.”
Alice leans backwards. Tim rocks back and forth in his chair.
All Together Now
Max recalls Sally explicitly asked for back-end refactoring time, which he chose not to accommodate for in his plans.
“What do you think Sally?”
Sally purses her lips then slumps in her chair.
“Yeah, I guess it’s fine like this.”
It’s not fine, it’s not fine at all.
“Okay, if no one has anything to add, then this is what we’ll commit to. I just want us to really work together on this, as a team.” Max concludes.
One by one each team member walks out of the room.
“Thanks guys, thanks so much.” Max mutters. Smile, just smile.
After the last team member exits the room the last bit of Max’s energy evaporates. When the door closes he crashes into a chair and buries his head in his hands. As he wonders what he could have done differently, he feels a wave of sadness flush over him. His hands slowly start to feel with tears as he starts to sob.
Two hours, several meetings and a lunch later, Max joins the early afternoon stand-up. The team is huddled in a circle around a screen showing all tasks. The team goes through the tasks one by one, discussing each item, as well as what they are going to do the rest of the day.
“So, with the new plans of this morning, should we reshuffle the tasks?” Alice asks.
Max intently stares at the screen, then unlocks his jaws and makes a jarring motion with his head.
“I will re-prioritize before Monday, so during the next planning session, we can put things in order.”
“Need any help with that?”
Max shakes his head, still keeping his eyes fixed on the screen. I don’t need any babysitting, certainly not from you.
“I can manage.”
Alice raises an eyebrow.
“So, next week we’ll have some time to refactor things, is that the idea?” Sally asks.
“Indeed, if you wish.” Max replies. But, definitely not for the refactor you had in mind.
The stand-up continues. It’s Tim’s turn to speak.
“I am going to work on refactoring the deployment today.”
“Is that really what we need now, wouldn’t it be better to do so next week since we just heard next week there will be room for that?” Sally asks.
“Why wait?” Tim shoots back.
“Because it’s not in line with the plans?”
“The plans you agree with?”
“I am not saying that, that’s completely besides the point!”
For god’s sake, not this again. Max interrupts. He feels sweat break out.
“Okay, let’s take this out of the stand-up.” His left hand twitches.
Why can’t they just get along and keep things peaceful? I really need this team to be stable, predictable and reliable, so they can finally start to deliver. The stand-up continues without any other discussion between team members.
After the stand-up Max takes Tim and Sally apart.
“Look,” Max says. “I really prefer to work in harmony, we should all work together.”
Tim and Sally remain silent.
“Can I count on you to make that work?” Max asks.
Tim loudly exhales. Sally looks unfazed.
“Yeah, sure Max.” Tim answers.
Sally nods. God, I’ve never worked with someone more difficult.
They both walk back to their desks.
Max grinds his teeth. He walks to the coffee machine in the pantry, Bob follows him.
“Hey, how is it going for you?”, asks Max.
“Yeah, I am fine”, Bob says.
“It must be difficult for you working with someone like Sally.”
“Maybe she won’t be around for long. If you have good ideas of your own: simply push back on her, okay?”
Bob bites his lip, and remains silent.
Let’s take a brief look and reflect on Max.
Max does not comment on Tim and Sally’s conversation. What may have helped is to open the dialogue with Sally to find out what bothers her. This could clear the air. Max should prioritize improving their strained relationship, not ignore it.
The meeting that Max prepared turns out to be surprisingly bland. The team seems disengaged. There is little discussion or conflict to speak of. When Alice suggests to cut down the number of features, Tim steps in with his point of view regarding the cloud setup. This could be the start of an interesting debate. However, Max immediately squanders the opportunity. He even ridicules Tim. It would have been better if Max allowed the conflict to unwind naturally. He could also dig deeper to actually understand Tim’s idea. Due to his own actions and the state of the team, Max is left feeling terrible. He is unable to share this and thus has to deal with it alone.
Something similar happens during the stand-up. Max refuses to accept help with prioritizing, because he perceives the team members as a threat. While having an actual dialogue could help the team better understand the business priorities and Max better understand the technical impediments. Additionally, Max interrupts a disagreement during the stand-up. This is not bad, because it is okay to take longer discussions off-line: a stand-up is supposed to be short. However, instead of trying to understand the conflict between Tim and Sally and encourage them to resolve it, he simply tells them to be harmonious, because Max himself is uncomfortable with conflict.
Finally, while Tim and Sally are talking behind Max’s back at the start. Max does the same thing with Bob: trying to persuade him to speak up against Sally.
You may expect people to really butt heads during meetings. However, we see meetings and stand-ups are very tranquil … and boring. When a team has a low level of interpersonal trust and psychological safety, the surprising result is that there is much less visible conflict.
However, don’t be deceived, there is no open atmosphere where team members are candid, can openly disagree, and reach outcomes constructively. Hot button issues are avoided. Because of this back-channel politics, personal attacks and tribalism take hold.
We see the willingness to be open and vulnerable have dipped to an all-time low. This leads to a workplace where bland agreement leads to artificial harmony and people avoid each other instead of resolving their differences through productive conflict. A constant underlying tension can be felt in every interaction. This drains the energy of all the team members.
Key indicators of a dysfunctional team with respect to conflict are:
- Artificial harmony (Max stopping discussions, requesting everyone get along).
- Bland agreement (Sally agreeing without taking part in discussions, Tim giving up).
- Avoidance (Sally avoiding Max, team members avoiding discussions).
What could the team do to improve?
- Everyone should stop with mean-spirited back-channel personal attacks and instead move to discussing disagreements about ideas in the open. These debates can be frustrating and passionate, but are always about the ideas themselves, not about (groups of) people.
- Team members with a natural tendency to avoid conflict should instead bring to the fore hidden disagreements, and should encourage others to stick out the debate until the conflict is resolved.
- Leaders, like Max, should restrain their protective behavior and not prematurely interrupt disagreements, but let them unwind naturally.
Productive conflicts form the backbone of a team. The accompanying passion and frustration enables the team and its members to learn and grow.