Leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence

Anthony Mersino
February 24, 2015

The second edition of my emotional intelligence book includes a new chapter, Success with Agile Teams. Anyone who has used Agile methods though will attest to the fact that leading Agile teams is not the same as leading traditional teams. Agile teams are expected to be self-organizing. This doesn’t mean there are no leaders, but it requires a style of leadership that is less prescriptive and more supportive. It is often called Servant Leadership, and it requires a lot of emotional intelligence.  I ended the new chapter in the book with the following 9 tips for leading Agile Teams with Emotional Intelligence. I believe these apply to Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, managers, and Agile leaders of all types.

  1. Evaluate your level of Command and Controlism. Take a step back and really evaluate the ways you use command and control. Are you holding back the teams you lead by trying to control them? If you are having trouble seeing it in yourself, note whether you see it in others. Or, ask those you trust to provide you accurate feedback on your behavior.

  2. Proactively step back and let others step up. Try stepping back and letting others decide what to do. Spend less time trying to force your will on others, or to manipulate them to do what you think they should do. Trust that whatever they do, they will learn from their behavior.

  3. Say less; a lot less. Rather than always being the first to speak up, trying shutting up and listening more. Really tune in to what others say, rather than your own internal chatter, or simply waiting for your chance to speak. See where the leadership comes from when you don't hog all the airtime. Try the empathetic listening techniques we've discussed in the blog and in Chapter 5 of the book.

  4. Practice some form of daily mindfulness. This is important for all PMs, but it is especially important for leaders of Agile Teams. Whether you use meditation, prayer, journaling, or some other technique, establish this as a daily practice that you do to be clear with yourself before you engage with the team. Put to use some of those Self-Awareness techniques discussed in this blog.

  5. Get underneath your fear. Most of us who feel the need to control do so out of fear, and many of our fears are irrational or unwarranted. Look below the surface to see if you can determine what you are afraid of. I know for me this is usually a fear of failure. I am afraid that the team will fail and that it will reflect poorly on me. Some of us also fear a loss of relevance. After all, if the team can do great work or come up with great ideas without me, what value do I have? Dig deep into what your underlying fears are, so that you can understand how those are affecting your behaviors with the team.

  6. Use Jedi Mind Tricks - When it comes to decisions, put the decision back on the team rather than jumping in and making the decisions for them. Try holding back on your own opinion even when asked. Take time to pause and to ask the team, “What do you think we should do?”. You might be surprised at what they say. Or you might say, "Is anyone else feeling the pressure to decide right now besides me?"

  7. That’s a Great Idea! – Some of us are so hungry to be affirmed, that we often find it hard to accept new ideas or perspectives from others. We’re used to saying things like, “that is a good idea BUT it won’t work because of… “. To overcome this type of behavior, practice saying "That’s a great idea!", and then look for every opportunity to say it. It may not come easy.

  8. Use Positive Regard with Everyone - See the team at its very best, not necessarily in their worst moment. Know that the team will rise to the occasion when they need to; that they will learn from their experience, and that they will get better over time. Hold each member of the team, and the team as a whole, with high positive regard.

  9. Be a Servant Leader – Agile team leaders, Program Managers, and Functional Managers all need to support the agile team. They frequently need to serve as a buffer between the Agile team and the rest of the organization. Tune in to the organizational norms that run counter to Agile and run interference for the team. Help streamline mandatory documentation or other PMO requirements do that the Agile Team can be empowered and self-organizing.

Want to learn more about emotional intelligence? You can always buy my book, Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.  You can also read the chapter on succeeding with Agile teams for free here at Get your own copy of Chapter 10: Success with Agile Teams. You can also read this article about emotional intelligence for people managers, or this article about emotional intelligence in the workplace.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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