Conflict as an Impediment

Conflict in a team can range from simple misunderstandings to hurt feelings and personal attacks.

Most of the time, conflict provides a constructive basis for a high-performance team. In other cases, it becomes an impediment. As such, it must be removed.


Lyssa Adkins, author of Coaching Agile Teams, is against the models that treat conflict as something that necessarily need to be solved - because they aren’t mechanic systems you can take apart, fix and put back together. Conflicts are an intrinsic part of human relationships. As an agile coach, you may help the teams to navigate through conflict, instead of removing or avoiding it.

As the idea is not to go into much details about conflict itself, Lyssa uses the five conflict levels defined by Speed Leas:

  • Level 1: Problem to solve. Ambient of collaboration and open language. Direct language based on facts.
  • Level 2: Disagreement. Personal opinion over collaboration. Language is more self-protective and open to interpretation. At the end, the solution is still the goal.
  • Level 3: Contest. Winning is more important than solving the issue. Often, it is a sum of prior unresolved conflicts and problems.
  • Level 4: Crusade: People gather in groups, and there is “another side” which is “wrong”. Distorted language and oversimplifications are in place.
  • Level 5: World War. The importance is not win anymore. Others must lose. Constructive outcomes are impossible.

As you can see, the lower the level, the easier to solve the issues that may arise in the presence of conflict. It goes until level 5, where no good results are possible.

Software is a tool, made from humans to humans: so it must be people centered. It does not mean every need/want of everyone must be addressed everytime. It wouldn’t be possible.

What happens when needs/wants aren’t addressed? Conflict. As already discussed, it can be a constructive basis for a high-performing team. But it can also be a “world war”.

The real problem arises when the conflict isn’t correctly managed. I see this may happen because:

  • The team can’t use conflict to collaborate. Things escalate easily from the first conflict level.

  • The team is unable to resolve conflicts.

  • Some conflicts cannot be solved, or don’t need to be solved. It may be a problem if the team can’t live with these conflicts.

  • Some conflicts are really hurting the team and become obstacles to the team’s work. This may happen even in “lower level” conflicts..

The cause of a specific conflict can be a mix of the previous points. All of them create space for an agile coach to assist the team in getting the best results.

Of these points, the one that more concerns me is the fourth: if the conflict is affecting the team in a bad way, it is an impediments. For all the other points the team can peacefully work even in the presence of conflict, if properly managed. When a conflict becomes an impediment, it must be removed.

Seeing the World Through Pink Glasses

Optimism is part of human nature (I’ve read the chapter on Hope and Optimism of Alan Carr’s book Positive Psychology and found it interesting). Pollyanna Principle was defined by Margart Matlin and David Stang in 1978. It is this optimistic thought process humans have, recalling more positive things than negative things, using more positive language and evaluating themselves more positively. But in some cases, this optimism can go to an extreme, to what is called Pollyanna Syndrome: “an excessively or blindly optimistic person”.

When it comes to the first value of the Manifesto for Agile Software Management, People and interactions over processes and tools, a dysfunctional team may have Pollyanna Syndrome. Let’s see why.

Team Conflicts

Some behavior examples that will probably generate conflict.

Teammate Refusing to Be a Team Player

The team agrees on something and someone consistently ignores the decisions, doing things his/her way.

In Agile Adoption Patterns, Amr Elssamadisy tells us to “Beware of local maximization” when talking about self-organized teams: team goals should be aligned with organizational goals. It also applies to individuals: their goals must be aligned with team goals.

A similar case can be someone, or a group, always questioning decisions made by the team and impeding the progress.

Lack of Accountability

The person has a role with different attributions. He/she is supposed to do something but deviates from it, transferring his/her tasks to someone else or to the whole team.

Of course, in an agile environment, the whole auto-organized team is accountable for the delivery. It does not mean everyone is expected to do the same things. For more thoughts on this dysfunction, check my article about Fake Cross-Functionality.

Lack of Action

Differently than the previous example, this person has the same role as most part of the team, but delivers way less because of inaction.

Personal Attacks

Someone consistently undermines the work of colleagues, be it a specific person or a group.

“People” Problem

All conflicts are about people. Even the most technical ones, like defining which programming language is best for the next challenge, how to implement a class, what design pattern to adopt etc. But notice all the examples of the previous section are conflicts are in the “people” side only.

People make mistakes. People may not be well physically/emotionally. People may not have the necessary skills… the reasons for these conflicts can be numerous.

I won’t go into details on conflict management. I really recommend Adkin’s Coaching Agile Teams - for an overview of, as she says, “conflict navigation”. I really believe it is a nice way how conflict is treated in this book.

The only problem is: sometimes a conflict is a impediment. Having an excessively positive behavior in front of conflict will just amplify it.

Conflicts as Impediments

My point is: you cannot use the first value from the Manifesto, “People and Interactions”, to support Pollyanna’s Syndrome. Even working hard to solve these conflicts the best possible way, it may be the case one of the parties isn’t willing to adapt to the expected behavior. And it is not about not letting people have their own ways. It is about not being a team player and really hurting the team.

Once I heard André Coelho saying:

People aren’t impediments, but they can act in an impeding way.

Teammates should support each other to be the best team possible. When conflicts turn into impediments, a self-organizing team should act on these conflicts to remove them. If someone recurrently refuses to collaborate, what is the point of having this person in the team?

This unwillingness to collaborate can be subtle. It may even appear the person is committed to collaborate with the team, but the same impediments continue to exist.

It’s in these cases I reinforce the importance of agreement.

Agreement as a Solution

I can’t remember how many times my team took the decision I considered the worst. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong. In every case, I was all-in with team’s decision.

Even not agreeing at first with someone’s point, navigating through this conflict together in a constructive way, both sides can uncover things and a better solution may arise.

Trying to reach consensus may be waste. But the team can easily reach agreement on how to cohesively move towards the goals. If the team finds out it wasn’t the best way, it can again easily reach agreement and adapt the plans. If reaching agreement is difficult, existing conflicts may be impediments. As such, they must be removed.