The Hard Life of a Scrum Master

The Hard Life of a Scrum Master

Frustrated Man

It’s been about 20 years since Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber announced Scrum at the Oopsla conference in Austin, Texas … Yet, the Scrum Master role is still a role that, in my opinion, is hard to sell.

The reality is that very few managers understand the importance of having one person dedicated to help the team and making sure that the team improves as time goes by.

And that creates challenges. Let’s take a look at some of these challenges of being a Scrum Master, including some of the syndromes many of them face, and possible ways to overcome them—including whether or not to be a line manager as a Scrum Master.

The Syndromes

I remember back in the day when I was a Scrum Master; it wasn’t easy for me to explain back at home what my job was … that’s probably why almost all the Scrum Masters that I know suffer or have suffered from the Impostor syndrome.

The Impostor syndrome is a person’s inability to internalize accomplishments leading to a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud."

It worth noting that it is very typical for someone suffering from the impostor syndrome to fight it with another syndrome: the White Knight syndrome.

The White Knight syndrome is the urge of pleasing someone by helping them. A person suffering from this syndrome defines his or her sense of worth mainly by the ability to help others regardless of being asked to help or if help was needed at all.

It makes perfect sense for someone feeling insecure about the meaning of his job to try to save / help everyone in every way they can.

To Be or Not to Be a Line Manager

Obviously, you could tackle these syndromes if the Scrum Master was the line manager of the team. The Scrum Master “hat” expects you to focus on the team goals while the line manager “hat” requires you to look after the personal goals of each team member.

The line manager acting as the Scrum Master gives enough confidence and empowerment to the Scrum Master to do his or her job with the extra responsibility of managing the team, but that usually collides with the servant leadership trait that all Scrum Masters should have.

A line manager is usually the imposed leader of the team (I say usually because in some organizations the team elects its own line manager / Scrum Master) and a servant leader is a self-emerging leader.

So you rarely have an imposed leader acting as a servant one, and that can actually cause the team to suffer from the Stockholm syndrome.

The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors.

You can see who the captor is and who the hostages are in a Scrum team when the line manager is the Scrum Master.

Gaining Respect

But the challenges of a Scrum Master don’t end on a few of syndromes. One thing that I learned is that it is key to gain the respect and admiration of the team you are in.

Since you (usually) are not a line manager and you don’t have any tools besides persuasion to lead people, it is very difficult to have people on board with you and with the values that you try to pass on to them.

Remember that the Scrum Master is an advocate of continuous improvement, and to me, continuous improvement is like innovation … you need time and room on your sprint in order to achieve that.

If typically everyone is busy and overloaded with work, you can imagine what happens to the suggestions of a Scrum Master; they will simply be relegated to a respectful second place and they will hardly be implemented.

From my experience, the best way to gain respect from a team is by not only “walking the talk” / “practicing what you preach” but also by clearly showing them that you are on their side, you are looking out for their interests and that at the end of the day, you are just another team member.

The Responsibilities

The Scrum Master’s position inside the team can be amazing or dreadful. I call dreadful the role where the Scrum Master is pretty much the person that only takes care of the administrative / bureaucratic tasks of a team.

Think of:

  • Keeping track of KPIs
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Remembering to tell the product owner to have the meetings well prepared
  • Making sure that everybody arrives on time to meetings

It is also terrible if the team ignores a Scrum Master and they don’t see the ability of him or her to help them out. A Scrum Master without influence on the team is like a shepherd ignored by his sheep.

One of the most effective ways of avoiding only doing the admin work is by exposing yourself, getting out of your comfort zone and by your own initiative, organizing talks or workshops regarding Scrum and its values.

You can also start having one-to-ones with team members or just create an agile forum where everyone can attend and talk about the ups and downs of the agility on your organization. It is just a matter of thinking a little bit outside the box and trying a couple of ideas that will show everyone that the Scrum Master role is much more than the admin work.

Operating at Peak Performance

As you can see, there is a really important decision to be made at organization level: Should the Scrum Master be the line manager of the team or not?

If it is, then it is advisable to keep a close eye on the teams and make sure that the Scrum Master is not holding them hostage (Stockholm syndrome). I admit that I enjoyed it (a lot) when besides being a servant leader, I was also the line manager and Scrum Master of a team.

But remember: with great power comes even greater responsibility… and not every person is ready or prepared for this combination. It’s truly demanding, and you can easily fall in a situation of micromanagement that kills the self-organization and empowerment of a team.

Regardless of being a line or manager or not, there are two things you should always strive for: Gaining respect and responsibility

Gaining respect by showing your team that you care and you are there for them; responsibility by showing that a great Scrum Master goes way beyond the admin work and can add value by coaching, guiding and enabling the team.

It’s amazing when aside from the (necessary) admin work, the Scrum Master is considered a true team member, and the team looks to the Scrum Master as the go-to person to help them solve their problems (on an ad-hoc basis or on regular one-to-ones), and also looks forward to embrace the changes that the he or she suggests.

It is a joy to watch the excitement of a team in attending a retrospective when the Scrum Master uses different exercises besides the classic “Glad, Sad, Mad.”

It is rewarding to see a team getting better after each sprint (because the velocity goes up or simply because the Definition of Done and the quality of the increments increase).

And one of the things I enjoyed the most was being considered the go-to-person when things needed to get done. At this level, the team practically treats you as if you were their line manager, without actually being it.

So as you can see the life of a Scrum Master is hard, it can be bitter … but if lived the right way, it can be sweet. I believe it is up to every Scrum Master to decide which flavor they are going to choose.


Pedro Gustavo Torres is a seasoned delivery manager, agile coach and trainer, currently working as RAD and agile lead at SONAE in Portugal.

Learn More
comments powered by Disqus