Chapter 20 Negative One
. . . in which one team member’s attitude has great negative impact on a retrospective, and the facilitator shields the other team members from the negativity
If we look a bit back in time in the story of Sarah’s journey on the road to becoming an experienced retrospective facilitator, we are reminded of the very first retrospectives, where Rene was less than impressed with the whole retrospectives business. Rene was late for retrospectives and apologized for it in passive-aggressive ways, such as by saying, “Oh, sorry, I was so busy doing my real job” and “I am glad everybody else has time for games at work.”
During the retrospectives, Rene took every opportunity to make ironic or sarcastic comments—always with crossed arms and a smirk on his face—about Sarah’s facilitation or the activities she chose. Sarah tried her best to keep Rene engaged in a positive way in the discussions, but she felt she got nowhere, and she could see that it was affecting the rest of the team.
Because Rene was a skilled programmer who enjoyed a high status in the team, everyone looked to him to see how they should respond to things, and his negativity soon spread to the rest of the team.
Negative Ones are very open about how they feel about retrospectives. They ridicule them or make derogatory remarks about a particular retrospective or retrospectives in general. They also try to win others over to their way of thinking in an attempt to end the retrospective or at least make sure there are no more of them in the future. This behavior can cause a lot of worry and stress for the facilitator, since it is very hard to ignore. Most likely, the Negative One is also negative in general and perhaps takes pride in being the critical voice.
Many facilitators choose to ignore the Negative One and hope the behavior will pass. Some facilitators become affected by the Negative One’s attitude and become angry or upset or feel inadequate at facilitating retrospectives. If not dealt with, this negativity can spread like cancer throughout a team.
A single Negative One in a retrospective might not be a huge problem, as long as the negativity does not spread among team members. But if the Negative One is popular or is highly esteemed by the team, it might spread to the rest of them. This will make the team members uneasy and the retrospectives unpleasant and less useful because participants will be afraid to take the activities seriously. And when the team fails to take the retrospectives seriously, it is hard to share and thus hard to accomplish the goals. If you are the kind of facilitator who gets angry1 or upset, the Negative One antipattern can have consequences for your mood and your feelings about yourself not only as a facilitator but also as a person.
1. If you know me, you might find it hard to believe that I have had to work hard with angermanagement issues when it comes to retrospectives and teaching. If you don’t know me, you probably find it easier to believe that a huge Viking can go beserk from time to time.
Negative Ones have their arms crossed, literally or figuratively, or both. They giggle, snort, or whisper negative or “funny” things to other team members. They might also talk in a negative way about retrospectives in the hallways, but you will not always hear about this. Another symptom is how this behavior affects the other people on the team. They might start sharing only superficial events with the rest of the team, or they might not participate in the activities during the retrospective.
In my experience, the Negative One is not negative to be evil or to consciously hurt others.2 This individual is often happily unaware of the effect of his or her actions or words. Try not to take the behavior personally. I know it is hard, and I still find it almost impossible at times not to take it personally when someone “hates retrospectives” or finds them to be “a glorious waste of time” (see my footnote about going berserk). Think of the Negative One as a gift you can use to learn about him or her, about the team, and perhaps about facilitating retrospectives in general. The gift might be wrapped in smelly, ugly paper, but it is still a gift if you choose to look at it that way.
2. This is not entirely true, since psychopaths do exist.
Remember, the Prime Directive holds for you as well. You must do your best to believe that everybody is doing the best they can with the resources available and the knowledge and energy they have at the time.
Now for what you can do about the Negative One. Take a moment to reflect on what he or she is saying and when. Is there something that could be triggering the behavior? Is there something this person might be afraid of? Some people are afraid of changes in general, and a lot of people are afraid of a transformation toward agile ways of working because it increases transparency. If everybody knows the status of everything, that could mean everybody knowing that you are stuck with a problem, which can be frightening. Having everybody know when you are not pulling your weight can be even more frightening. Some people fear change in general because they are unsure whether they can work in a new way or can understand the new process.
Take some time to meet with the Negative One outside the retrospective, one-on-one, and explain that his or her behavior affects other people and that it affects you as well. Be as honest as you can and want to be.
You can also apply the very effective pattern from Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas (Rising & Manns 2005), the Champion Skeptic. In short, this pattern asks you to make the Negative One work in your favor (or in favor of the change you are helping to implement, in this case, the use of retrospectives). You tell the Negative One that you know he or she is intelligent and knowledgeable about the workplace, the team, and the system and that you have noticed his or her ability to spot critical problems with using retrospectives as a learning tool.
You explain that you need his or her help, thereby turning the Negative One into a Champion Skeptic. Retrospectives are an undertaking the team has decided to do (or perhaps have been forced to do), and your new Champion Skeptic can help you figure out what works and what does not work. During the retrospective, you can have a, perhaps secret, agreement whereby he or she signals you if something needs to change or if something happens you should be aware of. Then, together, you can make a plan for the next retrospective.
I have used this refactored solution numerous times, and the Champion Skeptics have become the most brilliant champions for retrospectives not because I have manipulated them but because they feel like part of the movement. This solution only works if you have the respect of the Champion Skeptics, but since they often are negative due to inferiority complexes or lack of acknowledgment, you might gain their respect by acknowledging them. After all, in their mind, if you find them intelligent or accomplished, you must be intelligent yourself.
As in offline retrospectives, it is important in online retrospectives to find the causes behind the negativity of the Negative One. Once you know what causes the negativity, you can start working with it in the same ways as described previously. If you find yourself suddenly meeting a Negative One in an online retrospective, you have to make the most of it in real time. An online retrospective offers ways for you to contain the negativity either by making all activities written and not oral, arranging more voting than free text, and using breakout rooms. The important aim is to not let the negativity spread to the rest of the team.
The most Negative One I ever had was a woman at a large Danish IT company. It made me wonder at the time if she was so negative toward retrospectives and everything agile because she had been forced to act like “a tough man” to be taken seriously in the IT industry. I often saw this behavior in women: they felt they had to toughen up to the point where any activity other than typing code was dismissed as ridiculous. Whatever her reason, I immediately noticed that she was hard on me and critical of the retrospective. I did two things.
First, I focused on the people who were interested and eager when I went through my introductions to activities and the agenda. More than 20 years of teaching and presenting have taught me that you make yourself happier if you seek eye contact and reactions from the people who are actually interested instead of spending a lot of mental energy on those who would rather sleep or play or work on other tasks. The people who are not interested will not be convinced by words in general anyway. As in everything else in life, you have to decide what problem you want to spend time on at the moment, because you will not have the time or energy for everything. This is described as the pattern Pick Your Battles (Rising & Manns 2005).
Second, before and after each activity, I emphasized why we were doing/had done it and what the expected/realized outcome was. By making the process of a retrospective concrete and obvious, you help the Negative Ones to understand that there might be something in it for them. It is always a good idea to debrief the team after each activity, but in this case, I had to make it very clear what we did and why. I also made sure the Negative One was part of every discussion by dividing the team into groups of only two people. In that way, she was unable to just look at her phone, as she was inclined to. (Some people believe they can multitask and read their phone while talking with others, but that is not how the brain works,3 and it is disrespectful to do so, no matter what the circumstances are.)
3. Unless it has to do with different parts of the brain—for example, I can whistle along to the Mozart record in the background while writing this chapter.
She was consistently negative during the entire retrospective, and I decided to talk with her afterwards. It turned out she had tried some agile process before, and in her experience, it only slowed her down. We discussed this a bit and agreed to help each other. She would give it an honest try at the next retrospective, and I would make sure the action points the team had decided upon were followed up and that the gain we expected to get from them was visible at the next retrospective.
We both did as promised, and the result was excellent. She informed me about the parts of the retrospective she felt were less useful instead of airing the negative thoughts to everyone present. I explained to her why I had chosen to do these activities and what I expected the team to gain from them. I sometimes changed course on the basis of her comments, and I always made sure that she noticed everything the team gained from the retrospectives. I did this by asking the participants at the start of each retrospective about the status and the effect of the action points (experiments) they had decided on at the last retrospective.
I also asked, after the Gather Data phase, if there had been any new information for anybody, since a big part of the gain from a retrospective is to get the common picture of what has happened since the last retrospective. And once in a while I would go through all the action points from the last 5 to 10 retrospectives to make it obvious that the team had made some changes and that some of these changes were sustainable and effective.
My former Negative One became one of my best ambassadors for retrospectives in the company because she was open-minded enough to learn to appreciate their value.