Coaching Through Conflict

The tricky side of conflict is that you don't want to eliminate it all together. As long as it is healthy, conflict within a team is actually a sign of life.

Isaac Garcia

September 24, 2019

Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters are like gardeners. It is our job to create healthy landscapes in which a team can grow and flourish. Carefully managing watering and soil needs, they curate softly rolling vistas for teams to run and play in paradise...

But then, a small weed pops up. Just one and it is really small. In fact, you might not even notice it amidst such lush beauty. But soon another takes root. Then another. Suddenly, to everyone's dismay, there is an outbreak of weeds! These weeds sour the pristine beauty of an otherwise healthy team. They drain resources and crowd out other necessary plants. It is time to take action.

It is time to put on your coaching hat and wade into the middle of unhealthy conflict dynamics in the team.

Conflict management is a key role for any Scrum Master, Agile Coach, or team influencer to play.

From my experience, there are always many ways to approach or contextualize conflict. I want to explore the first of 3 sides of a conflict triangle I have found help keep the weeds out and the healthy growth in.

  1. Understand the role of conflict
  2. Equip the team to self-organize
  3. Don't wait

Perhaps in future blog posts we can delve into the second and third elements.

I'll also share a resource that has helped guide my thinking on the subject.

Understand the Role of Conflict

We can all see the signs. Everyone on the team can sense the tension. Something isn't right in paradise. It can be as subtle as one team member giving a short answer to another, or as blatant and someone yelling or slamming a door.

The tricky side of conflict is that you don't want to eliminate it all together. If you simply demanded a team never have conflict, you would actually be creating a sterile environment free from the necessary engagement for success.

Consider this, our goal for teams with an agile mindset is to foster open, healthy environments for people to bring and express their whole selves. Principle 5 from the Agile Manifesto states: "Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done." We don't need a team of robots, we need a team of motivated individuals.

What do you know about motivated individuals? I know that they are passionate about what they are working on. Sometimes, that passion turns into emotion. And that emotion can turn into conflict.

As long as it is healthy, conflict within a team is actually a sign of life.

As gardeners, we want to be creating the conditions for that life to express itself. Consider that weeds and herbs are both plants. They both take soil, light, and air to grow and thrive.

So, how do you know if you have healthy or unhealthy conflict? Examine the fruit. Healthy apple trees produce apples. Dandelion weeds produce more dandelions. And nettles... produce painful points. From the produce of conflict, you can see if it was productive or damaging.

Look to the team right after a conflict has deescalated (if it doesn't deescalate, but lingers like smog, it is unhealthy).

What is the ultimate outcome of the conflict? Has the team wrestled because they are passionate, but the best idea won? Is there more comradery than before the conflict? Or are there turf wars brewing with people taking sides and beginning to use "us verses them" language? Are people feeling silenced or marginalized? Is the morale of the team up or down? What about team safety or net promoter score?

When you start to see the weeds spreading and unhealthy conflict taking root, it is time to take action.

The 5 Levels of Conflict

I highly recommend reading up on different conflict models (and there are many). One of my favorites comes from Lyssa Adkins in Coaching Agile Teams. You can actually read about them in an excerpt from her book here.

I'll summarize them quickly:

Level 1: Problem to Solve (healthy)

  • Information sharing and collaboration
  • Language is open and fact based

Level 2: Disagreement (warning)

  • Personal protection trumps collaboration
  • Language is guarded and open to interpretation

Level 3: Contest (danger)

  • Winning trumps resolving
  • Language includes personal attach

Level 4: Crusade (danger)

  • Protecting one's own group becomes the focus
  • Language is ideological

Level 5: World War (danger)

  • Destroy the other!
  • Little or no language is exchanged


As the gardener, we want a vibrant ecosystems for our teams and their abilities to thrive and be celebrated. Unhelathy conflict is one of the many little weeds that can grow and produce harm if unchecked. We must be vigilant to keep our ears open and our senses attuned.

This is one of the primary reasons coaches avoid being drawn into the specific details of discussions. Many scrum masters with development backgrounds can be tempted to step in and add technical ideas and solutions. Yet, someone must be minding the farm. Someone must be listening for the damaging conflict. Measuring the glances or the pauses that signal health or imminent eruption.

You can make the difference between healthy team conflict and unhealthy. Be the champion for team health.

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