Picture of Stephan van Rooden

Stephan van Rooden

It’s how you say it!


The last couple of weeks I have noticed how often messages don’t come across as intended. This is not only destroying relationships but can also limit an organisation trying to empower their employees to show their professionalism. The reason people say something, the ‘why’, is usually correct. You don’t open your mouth just because you feel like it. Especially not in a professional environment. Also, what they want to bring across usually is very good. However, where most things go wrong is ‘How’ it’s phrased. It’s how you say it! Here are some examples.

The wall of shame

One morning a Scrum Master approached me looking very concerned, he showed me a piece of paper which was an email from his manager. In this email the manager stated that he intended to create a ‘Wall of Shame’.

“What do you think of this?” the Scrum Master asked me.

“Its horrible!” Was my primary and secondary response.

The email further stated a ‘reason’ for creating this wall. The user acceptance tests resulted in the identification of some issues. The manager wanted to make transparent that the amount of issues found was not living up to his standards of quality. So, I shared my opinion with the Scrum Master and said he could quote me on this. The next morning, this manager was standing right next to my desk before I even found time to take of my coat.

“It’s about the wall of shame, right?” I asked the manager, who just stood there for at least half a minute.

“Yes”, he said firmly.

I explained to him that this was a horrible idea. He replied that this ‘Wall of Shame’ was a crucial part of the cultural change he wanted to achieve. Which is actually a mechanism to keep the current culture in place, which didn’t allow for mistakes. He further explained his reasoning. These issues obviously needed to be investigated and the teams needed to learn from them. I couldn’t agree more with him that the only time it’s OK to make mistakes if you try to learn from it. But how does this Wall of Shame promote the willingness of people to learn?

Personally, I would do everything to prevent from a piece of work I did to end up on that wall. But since I am human and therefore flawed by definition I cannot work free from mistakes. So what would my behaviour be? Yes, try to cover up the mistake or not make it transparent.

Finally, while the manager started to move away to run to some other meeting I stated, yes, I agree with your intention but I disagree with the ‘How’. It’s how you make it come across to the team. think about that! He nodded and ran off. Never hearing of the ‘Wall of Shame’ ever again.



Last week, at a large meeting at Prowareness we had a different example which displayed the impact of applying the ‘How’ wrong.

Every Tuesday we get together as a company to work together to improve Prowareness and to exchange knowledge. One of the tasks we were asked to work on was to think about and write down the ROI (Return on Investment) we made that last month for Prowareness and our Clients. However, not everybody spent time on this. So what happened?

Those who did not work on their tasks were asked to put up their hands. So they did, honest as they were. Next, those people were asked to come up to the stage and stand there in front of 60 of their colleagues. That felt very wrong. Both for those on stage and those in the ‘audience’. In an organisation where we value Transparency and where we live up to the statement that an agreement should be met and mistakes are mandatory.

It is good that we hold each other accountable for our actions. However, is putting everybody on stage who did something wrong the right way? I believe it’s not, it’s the wrong ‘How’. So we talked about this, open as we are and we agreed that we should hold each other accountable but not to do public naming and shaming. This doesn’t make our company a better place. We should  focus our attention to those who did work on this task so those who did not do it would feel as if they have missed something they really want to be part of. Reward the behaviour you want, from my perspective works better that punishing wrong behaviour.


At a sprint retrospective, the scrum master summarized what the Scrum Team was able to complete in the sprint. Obviously, there are some things not done. Which were labeled by the Scrum Master as follows: “This is not good, this is actually very bad!”.And then he continued the retrospective. Surprisingly (not really) one of the points for discussion put up by one of the team members was that it should be ok to make mistakes.

This was received by the Scrum Master as something so trivial that it almost was strange that this team member proposed this. Within five minutes after the Scrum Master judged the work done but the Scrum Team. So right after the retrospective I talked to the Scrum Master on this and confronted him with the statements he made and asked him what the impact is of such a statement on the team. He was shocked and not aware of this impact. He said, “I still believe that it’s not good but …..”

And I filled the second part of the sentence.

“It’s not good if you leave it at that statement. It’s is your job as Scrum Master, your most important task to enable the team to learn from their mistakes.”

So instead I proposed to him to extend his sentence the next time as follows:

“This is not good, this is actually very bad, we need to do something about this and since we are in the retrospective anyway lets spent some time exploring how this happened”

The key thing, especially as Scrum Master, is how you say it!

Three examples from the last couple of weeks. When you say something remember the following. You are most likely right about ‘Why’ you want to say something. Probably you are also right ‘What’ you want to achieve with saying it. But please think for a minute very carefully ‘How’ you want to say it!

More to explore

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