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Why empathy is the only hard skill you need as a Product Manager

Written by
Ido Steinberger Ido Steinberger
Product Lead @ Moon Active
Why empathy is the only hard skill you need as a Product Manager


I love being a product manager, but over the years I found it very hard to explain to other people what it is exactly that I do. I was trying out different metaphors to convey what is the role of a PM, including the famous “it’s like being the CEO of a specific area in the product” or “it’s like being the conductor of the product’s orchestra!”. I finally settled on just telling people being a PM is being great at everything, but not amazing at anything, it’s all about working with the best professionals and navigating the team towards success. Today I can already say I was wrong, you do need to be amazing at something - you need to be skillful, at empathy.

Product managers come in many forms, varying from the different companies and products they work on, and the experience and knowledge they bring from previous roles. I’ve rarely heard about someone who started their career immediately as a product manager. I personally found myself gravitating towards the PM life from being a product designer (UX/UI) and making the somewhat expected transition into product. But I have friends and colleagues who came from business analysis, from RnD roles, marketing and even HR. This is a great as PM roles are extremely diverse, requiring you to master a variety of workflows and mental-models: being oriented by data, understanding UX and visual design, controlling all the professional development and coding terms, prioritising tasks on the spot and for future quarters, communicating with stakeholders from different disciplines or writing detailed requirements for features and enhancements.

An awesome PM will be able to do all the above to a certain extent, excel at the things that come naturally to them, and take a step back and learn the things that are foreign to them. For me as a former designer I feel very comfortable working on user flows and wireframes, but much more hesitant when it comes to quantitative data. This is OK, nobody can be perfect at everything, and knowing where you are great and where you fall short, will set you up for success. However, going back to the title of this post, the one thing all great PMs should excel at is empathy.

Excel sheets don't speak, humans do

So what exactly is empathy when it comes to product management? Empathy is the ability to identify and comprehend the emotions, needs and pains of others. It’s being able to read between the lines, and to understand the point of view of someone else. This concept branches out through the many fronts a PM manages at once:

  1. Stakeholders and management.
  2. The feature team - RnD, Designers, PMMs, micro-copy writers, analysts and more of the business units that make up the team.
  3. The end-user/client. This is extremely relevant for PMs working on B2C products but also relevant to B2B models to a certain extent.

Those 3 fronts co-exist and are handled by the PM on a daily basis. A PM needs to be able to communicate with the stakeholders to align the product to the company’s focus and business goals and create a roadmap. Then they need to define, plan and deliver those features and values together with the feature team, managing the day-to-day work and ceremonies and eventually ship an amazing product to the end-user. But this is not a linear process, but a complex matrix system that shifts and changes regularly. User needs should fuel and guide strategic focuses by stakeholders when communicated properly, while the team’s capacity and motivation can have a massive effect on the final scope and quality of a feature.

This is a very complex situation to handle, and this is exactly why companies and organisations should focus on bringing the best, most empathetic PM talent to join in. The PM should relate to and try to get the bottom of the emotional aspect that drives decisions and behaviours. The most obvious and important aspect of this notion is representing the end-user in the product’s vision. The product manager is in charge of reflecting the needs of the user, the quality of their experience and their perception of the product/service. It means conducting interviews with users as frequently as possible, always focusing on their personal view while trying to extract insights for the good of other users. It’s about relating to each user’s personal use-case, observing their terminology and emotional responses and reading through it to extract the raw needs of the user. In other words, don't just listen, hear them out.

However, this shouldn’t be confused with immediately changing the entire product’s roadmap to cater to a specific user’s request, which is very tempting once developing a personal and empathic relationship with another person (who happens to be a user in this case). But it’s using those insights to build the bigger picture and communicate it to the entire team when needed. The end user is the only one missing in the meeting where the roadmap is reviewed by stakeholders, and it’s the job of the PM to make the user's voice heard. Companies that make decisions that are only based on the company's point of view, will miss in delivering the true required value to the user, and eventually lose their market reach, as competitors who will do it faster will just become better. It is unfortunate that as companies tend to grow and branch out, they become much less connected with the true problem they wanted to resolve in the first place.

There are many great tools and methods out there that can help a PM practice their empathy skill. One of my all-time-favourites is the Empathy Map chart by Dave Gray which is used often to create user personas and use-cases for UX and product teams. It has a great visualisation and breakdown of the different things you should think about when making decisions about scope of features and a way to look at the user experience from a different perspective.

Empathy 1

There are other great concepts out there, just look it up. But for me it’s much more abstract and simple than that. It’s about always trying to prioritise the thought of “what is the person in front of me feeling and why do they feel this way” before the intuitive “what do I feel about this”. This is extremely tough, but practice makes perfect and the outcome is so rewarding. Asking this question will always make you react, think and communicate better, it will create deeper relationships and create genuine trust, which is one of the most elusive things to achieve professionally. And it goes beyond just talking with users and understanding their agenda, it takes us back to the first two fronts the PM is managing on a daily basis - the stakeholders and the feature team.

Having a great empathy skill means asking the same questions when talking to your boss or the CEO and understanding where they are coming from with this nasty new task, or when talking to your dev team that just simply can’t understand why you are adding new requirements for the feature when it’s almost passed QA. It is a conversation, a 2-way street - you should empathise with the other person, while trying to communicate your own feelings and thought-process. So when you do need to add new requirements for the feature at the last moment, try to make the team understand why you made this decision, what is the value of adding it now. And even more than that, acknowledge their situation and how they must be feeling frustrated with this.

Empathy is such a strong and immediate tool, it can help bring people on the same side, break down barriers and objections and develop an open communication channel. I’ve really seen great problems resolved simply by respecting the other person’s opinion and recognizing it out loud. I’ve seen roadmaps change and adapt to the true need of the user while bringing tremendous business value to the company when communicated properly and thoroughly.

So can you learn empathy? I’m not sure. But realising this is your job and that this is what you should excel at as a product manager is the first and maybe only learning that you need to do. Always try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes before reacting, whoever this person is - the big boss, your colleague or the user you are talking to. It brings us back to the most fundamental aspect of being human - being able to observe beyond our own perspective, and this is the most important skill a PM should have.



Ido Steinberger

Ido Steinberger
Product Lead @ Moon Active

Ido is a Lead Product Manager with a career spanning over 5 years. He began his journey as a UX designer, driven by his passion for creating exceptional user experiences and later progressed into Product Management.

For the past 2 years, he has been leading one of the flagship games at Moon Active, working closely with his team to collaborate and innovate to keep the game at the forefront of the industry.

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