This article is copied from the email I’ve received from Corinna of Retromat. Subscribe to her newsletter here to get more of these useful tips.
“I just can’t get her to engage!” – Ways to engage unwilling participants
A Scrum Master from the financial industry shared a problem with me:
“My gnarly problem is that I have one member of my team that doesn’t
like to participate in our ceremonies. Her body language shows it, but
her words never do. She doesn’t really talk during any of the
ceremonies, just tells our manager that she thinks they are a waste of
I keep trying to play games and spice things up and I’ve tried the
boring, to the point method of: works well, not so well, and needs
I just can’t get her to engage! Any help on this?”
seems to be a very common problem. I’ve certainly had it. Here, I’ll
try to keep a focus on retrospectives although it seems to be a larger
a live coaching situation there are loads of good questions to ask: How
does the team react? Was there ever a retrospective during which she
was engaged? What is she like outside of the retros?
Without knowing many of the specifics, here is some generic advice.
Prologue: We can’t force agile on people
In general, I’ve stopped forcing people. As Marshall Rosenberg
said, you cannot make people do anything. We certainly can’t make them
“be agile”. If she doesn’t want to be there, she won’t engage. What
would happen if she didn’t have to come? How would that affect the team?
How does it affect the team now that she’s not engaging?
often seen teams invest a lot of energy trying to include someone who
didn’t really want to be part of it. Not everybody is cut out for agile.
Not everybody can be won over. That’s okay. Time will tell if she wants
to work in an agile team or not. Sometimes it’s best for everyone if
someone leaves the team – As graciously as possible: Let everyone save
face. Certainly no mobbing!
But we’re not there yet. Everybody deserves a fair chance and we’re trying to include someone.
Make it worth her time
She gave a reason for her disengagement, at least to the manager. And it’s a valid reason. Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka taught me: “Everybody is the expert for their own situation”. If she thinks it’s a waste of her time, then it’s a waste of her time. Period. The question is: What would make it worth her while?
is your relationship like? Is that something that you can ask her?
Without being defensive or reproachful? With a curious mindset because
you would honestly like to know? That would be my preferred route. And
you can phrase it very positively: “What would you want to have happen
that would make the retrospective a good use of your time?”
If you feel like you cannot approach her directly, you could try Outcome Expectations. Maybe she will tell what would make a retrospective valuable to her.
Make people speak up early in a meeting
In the Retromat ebook there is a passage about quiet people. Quiet as in “shy or introverted”. It’s not the same as an unwilling participant, but the following tips might help:
If people don’t speak early on in a meeting it gives them silent
permission to stay quiet. It’s part of the duties of the “Set the Stage”
activity to give everyone the opportunity to speak within the first 5
You’ve already mentioned body language. What about her position in the
room relative to the other participants? A lack of involvement might
manifest in sitting outside of the inner circle. Luckily positions also
work the other way around: If I can coax a person to join the inner
circle they will often also engage more.
For the future: ESVP
When I start with a new team I often run ESVP
in one of the first three retrospectives. I’m fully prepared to let
Prisoners go. I’ve only ever had Prisoners once (in a retro with 25
people). I invited them to change their minds and then gave a 5 minute
coffee break to let them slip away quietly. (ESVP was anonymous, of
course. I honestly can’t remember if everyone came back or if the 2
prisoners stayed away.)
assume your team is not that big and it would be obvious who the
prisoner is anyway. Plus, you’ve already worked with that team for a
while. That’s why I wouldn’t use ESVP here, unless you think it might
surface some other, less obvious Prisoners.
ESVP is something you might consider for a future team.
Phew, that’s it.
tl;dr Don’t force her. Find out what would make it worth her time.