Why Aren’t People Talking?

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Why Aren’t People Talking?

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I have a question and would like to get some inspiration on an activity I’m trying to put together. Looking for an activity which will cover the following:

My team is virtual, with a couple from another country, so English isn’t their first language. I have team members who don’t communicate to others to advise when they are done work so others can proceed, and the team on the most part is not functioning as a single entity. Now we are still in the Storming Phase, as this team was formed in late January and we added two new members over the last month.

The work gets done by the team, but it’s the bonding, communication, and paying attention when others speak, where I’m seeing issues. Especially hard being virtual for some I gather.

Clearly, the person sharing up the scenario wants things to change, improve, or get better. They want the folks to talk. And their reactions are—

  • How do I get them to talk more or when needed?

  • Do I just call on everybody in the meetings and make them talk?

  • Under the banner of continuous improvement within the team, how do we change this?

As a backdrop, they have a dual role of Scrum Master of the team and a Developer on the team. So, the mixed nature of their roles might be exacerbating things. Perhaps?

The first point I want to amplify is, and this comes from my professional coaching and ORSC experience, that you can’t fix (or change, improve, modify, etc.) anyone. In this case, anyone would be the team or any individuals on the team.

Instead, we need to meet them where they are and show them the situation and the impact. Sure, we might encourage or influence them to change. But we can’t change them. Only they can do that. 

So, in this situation, keep that in the back of your mind.

In this situation, I think the mixed roles are not that helpful. For example—

If I’m an active and vocal and culturally comfortable team member, then I may be communicating quite well and frustrated with others. I may have also pre-decided what is “wrong” and what needs to be “done to correct or fix things”.

However,

If I’m the Scrum Master, then I should be looking at the entire team as a system and working within it to facilitate recognition and improvement. I need to withhold judgment and try to remain patient as change unfolds.

I’d recommend that the person who is bringing up the scenario pick/focus on a single role. If I was to recommend one, I’d say fully immerse in the coaching aspects of the Scrum Master role and see where things might go as you actively coach your team.

This is probably my most important point in response. Gerry Weinberg talks about the Rule of 3 as a means of reflecting on the possibilities for any complex situation, problem, or decision. I’m going to extend it. That is, what could possibly be creating this phenomenon of not speaking up? Here’s a quick list of the possibilities that I pulled together—

  • Cultural differences

  • Introversion and shyness

  • Apathy

  • Lack of organizational vision

  • New team members

  • Lack of psychological safety

  • The last time I talked, nobody listened

  • The team lead drives all the decisions (but they’re unaware of it)

  • I’m new to the company and I’m simply trying to catch-on

  • Managers in the room

  • Everything is fine, the team is quiet but they get shit done

  • Highly distributed team

  • The team hasn’t been chartered well

  • Insecurity, Imposter Syndrome, lack of confidence

  • And I’ll stop there…

My point is, all of the above are possible. And there can be multiples of them in play. So, simply calling on folks or telling them to “speak up” might not work. In fact, it might make things worse or be the absolute worst thing to do.

I guess my point is that I think it’s best to work with the team and ask them to explore their behavior and the root causes behind it. What are their views? And what might they need to encourage them to speak up more?

Then, as their coach, observe the conversations (and the lack thereof). Read the emotional field and all of the communications channels. Then, based on what the team says & comes up with, layer your observations and coaching conversation(s) on top.

This might be as simple as giving them more permission to speak. Or as complex as organizational culture, geographic culture, and psychological safety coming into play. You don’t know. So, the first step is to explore AND not come to any quick opinions of your own…

My experience is that human systems are complex things indeed…

And I think it’s a trap for anyone, especially Scrum Masters and coaches, to too quickly decide on what they think the root problem or cause is in a situation. The point being, don’t do it.

Instead, try the following— 

  • Stay humble, considering that you don’t know everything;

  • Release your biases and baggage;

  • Put on a meta-skill of curiosity and deep democracy;

  • Engage the entire team in exploring their challenges;

  • Leverage Weinberg’s Rule of 3 before making any singular assumptions.

And embrace the fact that you as a change agent cannot change things. Instead, you can reveal things to others and influence change

Stay agile my friends,

Bob.

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