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Passive aggressive attitudes in Sprint Planning and Retrospectives

 
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Hi Ryan and Todd,

I wanted some pragmatic advice about team planning and retrospectives in the small company I currently work for.

There is a recurring situation where the product owner becomes aggressive and swears at the team.  There are comments about losing customers, the company having to pay back business loans, and lots of direct eye contact, and personal references.

I find this passive aggressive style exhausting, and frustrating.  I have to constantly ensure that what I say is measured.  The environment is not safe.  

When I actually do my job as a senior developer, and ask what the priorities are, or query a feature request, the product owner stresses out.  Ten minutes later they are nice.  I'm sure there are other issues in the business, but this behavior is repeating itself.

There is the added issue that the scrum master is at a junior level, and does not support the team.  I'm afraid they are out of their depth, and do not appreciate the interpersonal skills (and dedication) in managing a team.

Another senior developer makes comments about team members, accuses them of wasting time, mocks them, and shuts down any discussion he does not agree with.  The scrum master does nothing to prevent this, and thinks it's funny.

The whole situation is dysfunctional.
 
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Disclaimer: I'm not a scrum expert, I just have a few years of experience as a senior developer in a scrum team.

That doesn't sound passive aggressive, that sounds downright hostile.

It appears the product owner's comments fall in two categories:

  • Matters that are of no direct interest to the scrum team: The company's poor state of affairs is no topic for a retrospective.
  • Assigning personal blame.

  • While it's good to keep your employees informed about how the company is doing (yes, also when it's bad news all the time), you do it in a separate meeting. The retrospective is there to reflect on the team's process.

    Assigning personal blame creates a hostile work environment in which workers are unlikely to want to make improvements. In fact, it's likely they will get demotivated and do a worse job.

    Swearing and insulting is NEVER okay.

    Does the product owner also outrank you in the company hierarchy? I find it that it's typically a bad idea to have a manager act as a product owner. The product owner should be an equal in the scrum team, with the responsibility of deciding how the improvements are prioritized, and they should also be the one who sticks up for the team in discussions with sales or management.

    It's the scrum master's role to guard the process. They ensure that the team works in an agile manner. It's not necessarily their job to take responsibility for the team when stuff goes wrong, and they also don't necessarily need to have 10+ years of experience. However, interpersonal skills are of paramount importance, and not acting to create a less aggressive way of communication between team members is definitely a red flag.

    Since you are a senior with a will to make changes, I think you can do the following:

    First have a personal talk with your scrum master. Tell them what you think about the whole situation, and tell them that you want to make changes to how the team communicates internally. Tell them that you want them to stop laughing at insults, and that you want them to train other team members to also behave themselves. Tell them that you will talk with other senior members of the team.

    Raise the issue of swearing at the retrospective. That's what the retrospective is for.

    Talk with the other senior developer personally. Tell them that you're concerned about team morale, and that you'd like them to try to be more patient with the other team members, especially the juniors.

    Finally, if you have an idea that the team is on your side, speak with the product owner on the team's behalf, maybe together with another senior. Tell them that their doomsaying is not conducive to the team's morale and that for the team to do well, you need to create a positive environment together.
     
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    Sidney Blake wrote:The whole situation is dysfunctional.


    Yes, it does sound very dysfunctional. Sometimes, if you can't change your organization then you just have to change your organization. Life is too short to spend it on a ship that's going nowhere.
     
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    This does sound like a hostile situation as others have mentioned... We believe that a good Scrum Master will step in and work towards resolving this situation. No offense to the junior Scrum Master but we believe that a Scrum Master is a senior position for this very reason.

    Scrum aside, this potentially sounds like a situation that needs to be raised to HR.
     
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