Mental stress of the Scrum Master job
The Scrum Master job, by its very nature, offers some potential for psychological stress. Of course, what is perceived as stressful is very individual and not every challenging situation occurs to the same extent in every work context, but recurring patterns are present. This article aims to give you an overview of challenges and possible solutions.
In order to understand where the stress potentials lie, you will first learn about the factors that make people satisfied at work and how the working circumstances of Scrum Masters affect this. Finally, you will learn what possibilities you have as a Scrum Master to help yourself.
Which circumstances lead to mental stress
As a Scrum Master, you support your team in developing the best possible product for the users. However, you do not produce anything yourself, but only enable others to work more productively. This way you have few visible results that you can be proud of and for which you can receive recognition. Also, the Scrum Master job rarely offers the opportunity for flow experiences, where you lose yourself contentedly for hours in a moderately demanding activity. Also difficult is that you step back in your role as an individual. Your personal preferences of how you would like to work are not relevant, as it is about finding the best working conditions for the team.
Once the basic structures of Scrum are established, you are often only dealing with complex problems, not least because there are always people involved. Unlike a technical problem, there is no error message; you can only get an idea of the situation from observations and conversations. If you then take a measure, it may take longer for its effects to become visible. In addition, the ups and downs of everyday life make it difficult to recognise whether a positive change is an effect of your action or just a good day. This can create a lot of uncertainty, especially for less experienced Scrum Masters. Since you as a Scrum Master are usually responsible for one – sometimes even several – teams, you are also alone with this uncertainty.
The environment makes many and diverse demands on you as a Scrum Master. You have many stakeholders with different interests and personal wishes. In addition to the developers and Product Owners envisaged in Scrum, there is also the company’s internal management and, if necessary, clients from customer companies. It can quickly happen that the demands placed on you lead to conflicting goals. In addition, the Scrum Master job requires a variety of skills, including team development, change management, knowledge of agile practices, communication and conflict management. Meeting all these requirements is almost impossible.
In the end, the work of a Scrum Master is mainly change management and it is well known that all change is difficult. Structures are inherently resistant to change, people are sceptical about new things and already busy with their exhausting everyday lives. Understandably, initiatives by motivated Scrum Masters are not well received and you move forward and sometimes backwards in tiny steps. If, as a Scrum Master, you explain the basics of Scrum for the hundredth time in your everyday life, you may ask yourself when you can finally take the next steps towards an agile paradise, like the one that supposedly exists for Google, Spotify and others.
What can prevent and balance stress
The Scrum Master job offers a lot of potential to wear yourself out on it, but by dealing with it consciously you can help yourself.
The most important measure is to seek out other people for professional exchange and emotional support. An official or unofficial in-house Scrum community is particularly valuable here, because your colleagues can best understand the special circumstances in your everyday life. But public communities can also be helpful, especially when it comes to getting to know new approaches and methods. A trusted person outside your own team can help you approach challenges in a structured way and reduce uncertainty.
Next, expectation management helps. Clarify with your team what you are supposed to do for the team and also how the team can help you do it. In doing so, you can also delimit what does not belong to your tasks as Scrum Master. Often there is only a vague understanding of what a Scrum Master is there for. A joint look at the Scrum Guide and a subsequent discussion about what the abstract description means in concrete terms for everyday life can help.
A specific clarification of the task with the Product Owner can be helpful, especially if the client is external to the company. If you, as a Scrum Master, interfere in the concerns of an external company without consultation, this can be perceived as encroaching. Therefore, talk to the Product Owner about the potential for improvement and set a common goal.
If you want to make a difference, you need to think carefully about which colleagues you want to persuade. According to Rogers concept of diffusion of innovations¹, there is always a small number of people who are open to new things. You can make them your allies and delegate functions to them. Then there is a broad majority who are neutral towards the new and a small minority who are – usually vociferously – against it. Often Scrum Masters focus on convincing the naysayers and work on them unsuccessfully. Instead, you can concentrate on the broad silent mass of the undecideds and persuade them much more easily to join in.
However, you should not only manage expectations with others, but also with yourself. The following questions can be helpful:
- “What is the maximum I can achieve here?” Aiming for more is not useful and leads to unnecessary frustration.
- “What can I change myself?” This is usually very little, but offers the possibility of achieving satisfactory results quickly.
- “Where can I influence and convince others?” Here you can effect change, but it will take patience and probably several approaches.
- “What is unchangeable?” Here it is not worth investing energy in trying to change. Instead, set yourself up for the situation as best you can, just like you take an umbrella with you when it rains.
- “Am I pursuing my own agenda?” If you are trying to realise your own agenda and ideals, resistance will hit you harder. You should also separate your efforts for personal goals and your work as a Scrum Master, as mixing them can cause you to lose credibility in front of colleagues.
An important basis for personal expectation management is regular self-reflection. It helps if you regularly make yourself aware of how you are doing, what is going well and what is going badly. This can happen, for example, in the form of a short weekly review. Looking back over longer periods of time, for example a year, can also help you maintain a positive perspective on your own work and recognise your successes.
As a Scrum Master, your job satisfaction depends to a large extent on your environment and the people in it. You will encounter diverse and contradictory demands and the focus of your work will be primarily on the problems to be solved. Through community with other Scrum Masters, expectation management and self-care, you can protect yourself from the potential negative effects of these circumstances.
 Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rogers (1962)
If you are interested in more information on the topic, it is worth taking a look at Lea Lindemann’s beautiful and informative website.
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As a qualified engineer for information systems technology, Lea Lindemann loves finding sustainable solutions to problems. In over 10 years in agile software development and IT services, she has gained a wealth of experience in various roles such as Quality Assurance, Requirements Management, Product Owner and Scrum Master. With this experience, she helps people in organisations to apply lean and agile practices to solve their current challenges with a practical mix of expert advice and coaching.