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David has enjoyed success using agile and lean techniques at several companies near Washington DC and San Francisco. He joined his first startup in 1999, and helped scale it to a 13 million dollar acquisition in 2006. He now brings entrepreneurial thinking into large organizations so that disruptive innovation can emerge. David is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 30 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Passive Aggressive Facilitation

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Practicing servant leadership as a ScrumMaster requires a great deal of empathy and patience. This includes suppressing actions that would otherwise cause harm to team morale and self organization if unchecked.

One trait in particular that is extremely counterproductive to the role is passive aggressiveness.

As someone who has been known to be snarky on occasion, I’ve had to practice my facilitation skills over time in a real team setting.

While I do feel as though I have several qualities that make up a good servant leader, I have traits that can make it more challenging as well. This is especially true if I’m simmering under the surface because the team has recently:

  • Missed their iteration commitment by a large margin
  • Verbally fleeced one another during a daily scrum or retrospective
  • Stopped showing up for daily scrums
  • Pulled random stories out of the backlog to work on
  • Told me I have no idea how to do my job
  • Decided they didn’t like Scrum and tried to get me fired
  • Performed a myriad of other actions that drive ScrumMasters crazy

Note: most of these will happen to you at some point along the way if you work with enough teams

To address issues such as these you have to take a very zen-like approach to your role, and serve as a mirror for the team without feeding into the negative energy. This requires you to think before you say anything to the team, which takes practice over time.

For example, even short comments such as “Well I guess we won’t make the commitment this time either” off the cuff can seriously undermine your team’s efforts. If they are stressed due to an unforeseen complexity in a story, then you need to simply note that and do your best to help them adapt. It can be addressed in a positive manner at the end of the iteration.

If after a while you feel as though you keep making these comments over and over, then perhaps you should step back and re-evaluate your role. Try to find a local user group to commiserate with, or reach out to an agile coach online. I’ve found this community takes a very collaborative and pay-it-forward approach so don’t go it alone.

Have any of you struggled with suppressing passive aggressive or other counterproductive tendencies while facilitating, and if so where did you turn for help?

Published at DZone with permission of David Bland, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)



Walter Bogaardt replied on Wed, 2010/06/16 - 12:14am

Part of being a scrum master is understanding sociology. They didn't call it scrum master for nothing.

Passive aggressive behavior, is often encountered when someone doesn't know what agile development is, and doesn't know how to go with the change. Sometimes it really takes hand holding of the person, be it a developer or business owner.

Agile, scrume, and xp are in them selves new concepts, no matter what side of the fence your on. I must be old but this problem exists wether you adopt these methodologies or you go towards waterfall, sprial, rational unified process.  

Emma Watson replied on Fri, 2012/03/30 - 6:12am

Great post. The danger here is that you can bottle-up what you truly feel about the situations and teams can instantly detect when you're saying something that you don't mean — which can come off as condescending. A scrum master should also feel safe to express themselves, just like the rest of the team


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