“It’s not our fault! The Product Owner is responsible for backlog management, the PBIs aren’t well defined.”

“It’s not my fault! The Development Team owns the Sprint Backlog, moreover, the PBIs went through refinement and they have the same level of detailing as the others.”

“I’m working on this PBI so I know how to best implement it. When it comes to you next time you can choose the way you want it to be implemented.”

“Do you think you work really well with this stuff?” “Yeah, do you think you are responsible for that?”

Do the above statements sound familiar to you? What kind of behaviors do they portray? Recently, I read a nice book by John Gottman (best-selling author) who calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Zuzana Sochova also mentions about these in her book The Great Scrum Master. These are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

As a Scrum Master, it is key to be aware of such toxins and to keep the team healthy. Create a safe environment that fosters collaboration, respect, and openness. Let us explore together what these four deadly toxins are and how to heal them.

Toxin 1- Criticism: You will always have complaints with the people you are working with, however, there is a big difference between complaining and criticism. Complaints focus on a specific behavior or an incident: “I am really upset that you didn’t pull the PBIs in your Sprint backlog as per my request.” In contrast, a criticism is generic and expresses negative feelings or opinions about character or personality: “Why are you so forgetful? I hate telling you again and again of what you are supposed to do. You just don’t care.” Common criticism statements start like “you always” or “you never.” People often turn any complaint into criticism just by inserting, “What is wrong with you?”

Toxin Neutralizer

  • You can turn complaints into requests by giving them a gentle touch of respect. Instead of saying, “you didn’t tell me about changing the order of the backlog items”, say, “I don’t want to miss it; what do you think of keeping the entire team aware of the changes from now on? Will you do it?”
    • Don’t make the situation personal. Focus on what can be learned from the situation rather than playing the blame game, as blaming won’t help you anyway.
    • Become more aware. While receiving criticism be mindful that the person criticizing you Cares about what you do and doesn’t want to make you feel bad. It is their unskillful way of providing you feedback. Help that person to gain the skill of giving feedback.
    • Apologize: Be careful about the impact of what you say on others and take responsibility if you felt it was your mistake.
    • Embrace the Scrum Values- Focus (Focus on the behavior or event and not being personal).

Toxin 2- Defensiveness: Defensiveness in all forms escalates the conflict, hence it’s deadly.

One might defend themselves when criticized, however, this approach often fails because defensiveness is another way of blaming. In a way, it’s saying that: “it’s not me, it’s you,” and it escalates the conflict.

  • Toxin Neutralizer
    • If your conversation partner gets defensive, it is quite possible that they might have misunderstood and it’s a good idea to ask them what they heard you say. For example, “Could you please clarify what you heard me say?”
    • Expressing that you respect and trust your partner and you want a more productive conversation.
    • Listening actively by being interested in the conversation, usually, people become defensive when they feel they aren’t being understood.
    • Embracing the Scrum Values – Openness (Open for critical feedback), Courage (not to become defensive), for example.

Toxin 3- Contempt: Contempt includes sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, hostile humor.

This toxin arises from a sense of superiority over others. It is a form of disrespect and often fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about others. One is more likely to have such negative thoughts if the differences are not resolved regularly.

  • Toxin Neutralizer
    • Identifying the undesirable behavior, express how it made you feel and indicate your willingness to resolve the situation. For example: “Hey John, I didn’t like what you just said; I don’t appreciate when people call me names, can we sort this out in a friendly manner?” Avoid using ‘you’ statements.
    • Have an exploratory mindset: “What do you intend to say that?” Clarifying intentions might help to convey their message in a more insightful way. Sometimes people are unaware of what they are saying.
    • Reminding yourself that you need to respect others in order to be respected.
    • By not promoting sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, behaviors in the team. One can still be funny and interesting in many other, softer ways, while still being respectful toward others.
    • Seeking first to understand then to be understood.
    • Embracing the Scrum Values – Respect (Respect every individual, their opinions, and diversity).

Toxin 4- Stonewalling: During any typical conversation, the listener gives attention to the speaker in many ways, such as using eye contact, nodding thier head, and say something like, “Yeah” or “Uh-huh.” But a stonewaller doesn’t give any sort of feedback. Stonewalling is an act of not caring about what the speaker is saying. It includes cutting off communication, not engaging in conversation, withdrawal, not being interested, not willing to express what your are thinking, and just sitting there like a stone.

  • Toxin Neutralizer
    • Creating a safe environment where people feel it is okay to express their opinions without the fear of being judged or evaluated. An environment which fosters openness and respect.
    • Embracing the Scrum Values – Openness ( an environment that fosters trust and safety), Commitment (to engage in a conversation as a partner).

What Is a Scrum Master’s Job in Dealing With These Toxins in a Scrum Team?

First thing’s first: Scrum Masters need to raise awareness and educate the team about these four toxins that can destroy them. Secondly, coach the Scrum Team so they themselves become aware of these four toxins, and could identify them as they see them. Thirdly, holding team members accountable for refraining from the toxins and practicing Scrum values day in and day out.

What other deadly toxins have you come across in your Scrum Master journey? And what antidotes do you use in order to create a healthy team? Teams that work in a healthy environment without such toxins are more engaged and happy, and that’s what we need as Servant Leaders… isn’t it?