As Scrum Masters, we sometimes encounter difficulties getting over our discomforts and paradigms. We may be afraid to act or to cause a tidal wave that may swipe someone’s morale and enthusiasm… Maybe sometimes we’re simply afraid of becoming afraid.

 


The best time to do some personal introspection is when fears and concerns are showing. You decided your new motto would “getting yourself out of your comfort zone”, but up to where are you honestly willing to go? Ask yourself:

  • Which topics are taboos for you and your team?
  • What are you willing to do about them?
  • What are you not willing to do about them?
  • Which situations do you prefer to tolerate?
  • What is the tolerance level of the members in your team?
  • Are they coherent with the team’s tolerance?
  • What would you like your teammates to tolerate about you?

These are all difficult questions to answer, but they make your personal values and paradigms visible and put them deeply to the test, and they also present a fantastic opportunity for self-awareness, personal learning, and growth.

At the beginning of my career, I managed a call center for a seasonal business. Each year, I had to find, hire, and train a customer service team. To uphold a constant service quality level, I tried hard, within the limits of our financial resources, to create a climate where teammates would be more than happy to return for another season.

This never ending flow of new employees obviously brought its share of challenges. I vividly remember a situation when two returning teammates came to me complaining about the personal hygiene of another teammate―let’s call him Michael. According to these two, the entire team had difficulty getting over his body odor when soliciting his help.

As for me, I had my own office… with a door… the closable kind… for coping with the noise of course. I could have told them to resolve their own issues… as any responsible adult would. I could have also ignored the situation as the season was coming to an end anyways and that everyone would leave the company soon.

I could have let the team decide what to do in a retrospective or I simply could have tried to hide it under the rug. It was the very first time I was confronted with such an unusual yet personal issue so far from the professional world. I was stunned with disbelief that a team would make such a fuss out of this. It shocked me in my values and beliefs and I found myself speechless, not knowing what to do.
The situation caused me to have a flashback of when I was eight years old, standing on the diving board at the pool for my first swimming lesson. The water was rather cold for an early June class, and I did not want to go in because it was way too cold… Although the only thing that I had to do was to take just one small step, the kind that pushes oneself beyond the point of no return, that step was difficult to take. Because I realized that at the precise moment following that step I would be totally committed, I would no longer be able to change my mind. I feared the coldness of the water, the thermal shock, hypothermia―you name it―but once I was in the pool, it was really not that bad after all.

So, in this professional situation, I made a conscious decision to just dive in. Michael was an efficient and knowledgeable person, and clients appreciated his drive and easy going attitude. I really wanted to convince him to come back the following year and felt that he was an asset to the company. Most importantly though, I strongly felt that Michael was a worthy person and that he was important. I did not want to hurt his feelings, but I also felt I owed him as his manager. So, I called him in my office and managed to find the appropriate words.

I handled it by making his problem my own and presenting a rationale he could make his own. Did I tell a little white lie, as my grandmother would say, filled with good intentions? I will let you decide. I told him that sometimes I forgot to put deodorant in the morning because I was not a morning person. I really loved to sleep in, and some mornings, I only got out of bed at the very last minute, on the verge of being late. Because of this, I always kept a deodorant stick in my desk’s bottom drawer just in case. Possibly, this could also be the case for him don’t you think?

By showing empathy (the “me too”) and by offering an honourable and realistic explanation (“leaving rapidly”), Michael did not feel I was hurting him as a person. He left my office thankful that someone actually cared enough about him to let him know. I then met the two informers to let them know I had met Michael, but I did not let them go that easily. In fact, I took the opportunity to explain the power of empathy.

During the following weeks, I gradually saw positive changes in the team dynamics. The team was teasing Michael up to a point where they were saying: “You smell good, do you have a date or something?” He became the team’s little brother and an appreciated team member. When I left the company a few years later, Michael was still working there… full time… as a team leader.

What did I learn from this?

  • Refusing to tolerate or ignore a situation, as sensible as it could be, reinforces team’s spirit and contributes to establishing trust within the team.
  • Willingness to be out of my comfort zone was destabilizing, but the experience was priceless and so worth it.
  • Anything can be said to anyone… it’s just a matter of finding the right words.
  • Largely publicized and recognized faults can undermine the qualities and skills of an individual.
  • Action can produce unexpected results, but inaction may result in the company losing a talented employee.
  • Showing empathy and true respect to an individual is not a concept exclusively for managers. Everybody can do it!
  • Teammates contribute cohesively with their own tolerance and comfort levels.
  • I felt a true moment of happiness and had the feeling of making a small difference in Michael’s life.
  • For credibility’s sake, never run out of deodorant…

Now let’s hear from you. Share a story where you decided to dive into the pool. What did you learn from it? How did it make you feel?

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