6 Ways Product Managers Actually Manage Fear

March 4, 2015

6:30 pm

Product managers spend a lot of time interacting with different teams – executive management, engineering, marketing, sales, customer support to name a few. We spend a large percentage of our time communicating, meeting, emailing, conference calling and talking in general. The reason we do this is because a big part of a product manager’s job is to set and manage expectations.

The real reason underlying the management of expectation is actually fear. Fear of missing a deadline, fear of looking bad, fear of failing, fear of being held accountable and ultimately the fear of losing one’s position, job, pride, self esteem.

Product managers need to manage this fear. Here are some pointers I use.

1.       Transparency is key.

Be completely honest and open about what you are seeing and hearing. This assumes the fact that you have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times. You have to pay attention and focus on the details. The devil lies in the details. If everyone at the table is aware of the details then honest conversations can be had, blame games will not be played and teams will have empathy towards each other.

2.       Have empathy.

Everyone is looking out for themselves. Sales needs to close the deal to meet their monthly quota. Clients need the upgraded feature so they don’t look bad in front of their customers. Leadership needs top line growth so they can go into the next board meeting with confidence. Engineering wants to be left alone so they can do the real work. At the end of the day we’re all just human beings with strengths and weaknesses and fears and insecurities. We’re trying to protect our own interests. Having empathy will allow you to cut through the fluff and deeply understand perspectives. Understanding perspectives will help you say the right thing at the right time to the right person.

3.       Communication can make or break you.

This is true for life in general but especially true as a product manager where a large part of your effectiveness rests on your ability to give and get directions. Email is great but use it more as a documentation tool than to resolve issues. When you have a real problem to solve – pick up the phone or walk across the office. The power of eye contact and human energy is underrated. Be clear, use short sentences, pay maniacal attention to details, don’t talk out of turn, don’t interrupt and most importantly – listen.

4.       Build real relationships.

People will like you before they like your work. In fact if they don’t like you, they will not like your work. This does not mean you kiss ass but it does mean you connect on a deeper level, a human level. Hallway conversations are extremely important when they don’t involve gossip. Lunches, happy hours, team potlucks, birthday celebrations all help build your empathy muscle – see above. Make friends. This will not only help you succeed at work, it will help you truly enjoy coming in to work.

5.       Have engineering’s back.

Be their champion and their shield. Protect them from the seemingly unrealistic demands of sales, leadership and clients. Take time to understand their constraints. Every engineering team in the world is short on resources, short on time and is yet again short on hitting the deadline. This is a universal and perpetual truth. Work with your engineering lead to protect the team and give them the space to deliver their best work. And if this means throwing yourself under the bus sometimes – so be it. Have your team’s back. At the end the only thing worth remembering will be the product you shipped.

6.       Managing your own fear.

You are a human being too so of course you have your own fears and insecurities and blind spots. Recognize, acknowledge, and accept them. Have empathy towards yourself. Be clear with where you want to go, why you are doing what you are doing and why this is important to you. Fight your own demons first.

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Zainab loves building digital products. She cofounded and ran TappedIn - a social discovery tool focused on helping people build meaningful relationships - for 3 years and currently heads up the social and mobile suite of products at Fishbowl Marketing. Previously she has managed product design and operations at The College Board, developed enterprise solutions for Capgemini Consulting and worked in ground breaking SAP technology with Satyam Computer Services.

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