While agile management may feature innovative tools and processes, how well team leaders manage emotions in agile teams can make the difference between high agility and low agility—and the ultimate success of the team in responding to crises and change.
The agile management approach, which began as a project management approach in the field of software product development, rejects rigid structures and processes in favour of customer-focused incremental processes that respond and adapt continuously to changing developments and customer feedback. Numerous methodologies have been developed to ensure the flexibility and responsiveness at the heart of this approach.
These methodologies, as well as academic research on Agile management, focus heavily on team structures, tools, and processes (e.g., self-organized teams, daily stand-up meetings, Kanban boards, etc.) In contrast, a study of teams of nurses in the Middle East facing a series of crises reveal a factor essentially ignored by agile practitioners, consultants, and researchers: the role of emotions in the success or failure of agile teams.
Prof. Murat Tarakci of the Rotterdam School of Management and Max-Antoine Renault, a researcher at Sidra Medicine research hospital in Doha, Qatar, conducted a two-year study of pediatric nursing teams navigating three crises sequentially: sudden floods, organizational upheavals that significantly affected the nurses’ working and living conditions, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Although all the teams used agile methodologies, the researchers asked ward managers responsible for several clinics in the hospital to assess the speed, responsiveness, and flexibility their nursing teams. These assessments allowed the researchers to differentiate high-agility teams from low-agility teams. They eventually settled on nine nursing teams, five high-agility and four low-agility, for their study.
During the two-year study period, the researchers conducted 45 interviews with ward managers, team leaders, and nurses, attended 19 daily huddles, surveyed nurses on their emotions following or during each of the three crises described above, and during the Covid 19 pandemic, monitored more than 1,000 WhatsApp messages sent by nurses in two of the teams.
The research revealed the high emotions that ran in the teams because of the crises. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, engendered feelings of fear, distress, and nervousness, according to the research surveys. Yet, in the high-agility teams, nurses also shared their emotions of pride, strength, and inspiration in dealing with the crisis. As evidence by observations of team huddles and WhatsApp messages, these individual positive emotions translated into a more positive team environment in high-agility teams compared to the negative team environments in low-agility teams.
The difference, according to the researchers, can be explained by the consistent effort of team leaders in high-agile teams to recalibrate team members’ negative emotions—that is, to navigate the team away from negative emotions toward more positive emotions.
To achieve this recalibration, which was missing in low-agile teams, high-agile team leaders recognized and accepted that individual emotions in crisis situations would vary; believed that tending to the team’s emotional needs was part of their mandate as leader; and made a special effort to thank and praise team members. Critically, the high-agile team leaders also proactively discouraged the formation of cliques. In times of distress, individuals tend to gather in small groups to offer support to each other. While low-agile team leaders did not see the harm in such cliques, high-agile team leaders recognized that the isolation of team members outside the cliques, or the presence of several cliques, would contribute to a lack of unity and unified support in the team.
Indeed, the researchers found that by managing team emotions, including helping individuals through their unique emotional responses, and preventing cliques, high-agile leaders strengthened the unity and teamwork of their teams—which in turn allowed these teams, according to the research, to respond with more agility and more successfully to the crises they confronted.
This research has clear managerial implications.
Actively and proactively monitor and manage the emotional well-being of agile teams. Different team members react differently to change—e.g., some will be distressed, while others inspired by the possibilities. Stay on top of evolving emotions in the teams as expressed in meetings, reports, or surveys, or in informal exchanges between team members. Ensure that positive, helpfulness, and morale-building are always present in these exchanges.
Discourage cliques, gossip about others, or any other manifestation of disunity. Explicitly discuss relationship stresses or divisions in the team. Strengthen the bonds and the trust between all team members. Team-building activities and team-level social events will also help.
Recalibrate negative individual emotions into positive team emotions. Listen to the concerns and other negative emotions of individuals as they arise, provide them with your support, and create a relaxed, empathetic culture in which all team members support each other. Train Agile coaches and scrum masters in Emotional Intelligence.
Agile teams are created to deal with change, and change inevitably impacts the emotions of team members and the team as a whole. Although often overlooked, the management of individual and team emotions is one of the most important responsibilities of agile team leaders.
Murat Tarakci’s profile at Rotterdam School of Management
Affective Leadership in Agile Teams. Max-Antoine Renault, Murat Tarakci. California Management Review (Summer 2023).
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