The agile structure allows the team to “self-correct” if one, or even a few, resources encounter motivation problems.  The transparency makes it difficult to hide such an issue, and the focus on team results encourages the team to step in and help out the individual in question.  But what happens if there is an event that impacts the motivation of the entire team?

I’m not talking about minor motivation issues – a poor sprint result, a spike in defects, etc.  I’m talking about an issue that directly impacts the day-to-day, and long-term operations of the team – an insolvable, deeply personal conflict between strong personalities on the team, a large layoff, something of that scale.

If set up properly, the team feeds off of every member – usually in a positive light.  However, this team reinforcement can become detrimental in the case of an event that crushes the collective will.  In this situation, the team can get caught in a self-sustaining negative feedback loop.  If left unchecked, this will greatly reduce the morale and productivity of the team, and could lead to people electing to leave the organization.

As managers, we’ve become so used to the tenet of “self-organizing teams” that we may hesitate to step in and take direct action.  We depend so much on influence and hands-off guidance that we may be tempted to let the team sort it out on their own.  This should still be the first response, but we must monitor the situation to be sure that correction will happen.  If it doesn’t happen, an external source is going to have to push the collective reset button.  What I’m saying is that the manager must get actively involved and address this issue.

You can have an open conversation with the team.  If the issue is temporary, you can subscribe to some transparency in the other direction.  Acknowledge the problem and validate what they are feeling, but help them to remember the long-term goals of the team/project/organization.  Depending on the situation, there may, or may not, be a good chance of success on this approach.

You can have an open conversation with one or two key individuals.  Whether it is the individuals most directly impacted by the issue, or just strong influencers on the team, doesn’t really matter.  What matters is getting someone “on the inside” to recognize the destructive nature of the loop they are stuck in, and getting them on board with solving the issue.

You can also consider the “nuclear option”.  There may be some cases where the issue is so ingrained, or so divisive, that the team’s ability to perform is permanently impacted.  It may be time to shuffle some resources around – move some resources off and bring in “new blood” from other teams.  This infusion can help reset the team mentality, but comes at considerable productivity and stability costs as the team has to reform with these new personalities and skill sets.

Depending on the exact situation, there are certainly other approaches as well.  What challenges and solutions have you seen in your experience?