Chapter 15 Curious Manager
. . . in which a manager is curious about what happens at the retrospectives and wants to listen in on them, and the facilitator, in a nice but firm way, says no to the manager
The team’s new boss, Janni, is curious about what is going on at the retrospectives. She has noticed that there is always a change after a retrospective, and she is often asked to do something for the team. She believes that if she could be present at the retrospectives, she would be able to help them more quickly and effectively. Sarah understands Janni’s reasoning and allows her to attend the next retrospective.
But something weird happens. Andrea and Peter are quieter than usual. When she asks them why, their answers are vague. The retrospective is going through its stages as it should, and everything seems to be fine—except that only very superfluous problems are discussed, and the whole room is a bit tense.
This antipattern is described as Line Managers Want to Attend in Luìs Gonçalves’s blog post on antipatterns for retrospectives (Gonçalves 2019).
It is often the case that the boss or manager becomes curious about what is going on behind closed doors. I have sometimes heard managers say, “I need to be there to hear what really happened,” or even, “I’d better be there and set this straight—they really need to stop making mistakes and to work faster.” Sometimes, this is perfectly fine, and there is trust between the boss and the people on the team, but most times, in my experience, the team feels more at ease without the boss in the room.
Building trust in a retrospective setting can be difficult, but destroying it is easy. It is one thing to invite the manager to the retrospective because the team wants her to be there, as in one of the refactored solutions to In the Soup (Chapter 3). But it is quite another if the boss wishes to be there, and the team is not asked for permission.
Perhaps the manager is allowed in on a retrospective for the team, just to observe. The manager may even promise not to say anything or disturb the retrospective—she would just really like to “see the magic.” The facilitator, either understanding the boss’s view or being afraid of her, accepts and informs the team that the boss will be present at the next retrospective.
Several different consequences can result from this antipattern. One could be that since the team members all feel safe around the boss, they behave as usual, and the boss gets a rare view into the dynamics, fears, and hopes of the team. More often, however, the team becomes anxious when the boss is present because she is responsible for hiring and firing, promotion, and pay raises. Team members fear that if they reveal their concerns and problems that have occurred, they might lose their job. Also, the boss might not be able to keep as invisible as promised, and once she starts talking, it can be difficult to get her to shut up again!
Some person outside the team invites him- or herself to the retrospective, disregarding how the team feels about it. Some team members are quieter than usual. The team only talks about the positive things.
One simple solution is to keep bosses out of the retrospectives. Actually, allow only the team at the retrospectives. If bosses or managers are curious, throw a separate retrospective at the management level. My rule of thumb is this: “If you can hire or fire, stay out of the team’s retrospective.” Now, of course, you have to explain to bosses why they are kept out of the meeting. Some bosses may fear that the team wants to talk about them behind their backs. You can reassure them that a good facilitator always tries to discourage venting against specific people and instead directs discussions to focus on communication or cooperation. Also, if managers fear what might be said about them, then this might be a symptom of another problem. Maybe the organization needs to work with trust issues, or maybe the managers need coaching.
During the retrospective, you can ask the team if you are allowed to share some of the information that was visualized at the retrospective, such as Post-it Notes or posters. Doing so can have the added benefit that the team becomes aware of what they would like the manager to know that they might not be comfortable relaying directly.
Alternatively, you could ask the team for permission to invite the boss, because sometimes they are okay with it. Asking can be tricky if people are afraid to say they would prefer not to have the boss attend the retrospective. Perhaps an anonymous vote is appropriate here, but be aware that every need for an anonymous vote is actually a sign that there is not enough trust among the team members.
For an online retrospective, all the same challenges and solutions apply. One difference is that an online retrospective often can be recorded, and the online documents can be shared easily. It is important to stress that everything that goes on in a retrospective stays in the retrospective, and anything that is shared is shared only if every participant is agreeable to doing so.
I once worked in a big company as an agile coach, and I had several teams for which I facilitated retrospectives. I had managed to keep the managers out of the retrospectives, but it took some convincing for them to understand. One of the teams was too afraid to say no directly to the manager, and I had to say it was against my principles. The team told me they did not want her there under any circumstances, but when she asked them, they were all smiles and “of course,” so I had to be the bad guy with my “stupid” principles. But that is the role of the facilitator at times, and I have learned to live with it.
This went well for a while, but this was a team with huge problems, and one of the team’s problems was this very manager! She frightened them, but I had to keep my promise to the team that, as in Las Vegas, everything that is said in this retrospective stays in this retrospective. Consequently, I could not even let the manager’s superior know about the problem. At one point, the manager dragged me into a room and asked me to spy on the team for her in a retrospective. She said, “You are so good at making people talk, so you need to make them talk about this and let me know what they are saying.” I have to admit that I also was afraid of her, but I had to tell her that that was simply not possible and that if I told her what the team said, I would quickly lose my ability to “make people talk.” She understood my position but continued to ask questions after each retrospective and even asked some of the team members as well. I later learned that she left the company.