Most product teams are swamped with so many “priorities” that you’d think the definition of the word was about spaghetti on a wall.
Unsurprisingly, this leads to burnout. When there’s more work available than any one person can do, the pressure to perform at an unrealistic pace kicks in. Even if breaks are encouraged, they become difficult to take.
It’s not just overwork that leads to burnout. Researchers cite six factors in total that can lead teams to burnout, all of which are a product of our culture and environment.
But for the typical product manager—achievement-oriented, sensitive to others and their needs, context switching multiple times per day and carrying a high degree of responsibility for the success of their product and team—these cultural pressures are intensified.
There is, of course, little value in viewing problems of culture as beyond us to solve.
Product managers actually have one of the most formidable skill sets available for protecting against burnout on a personal level.
The key is to practice the skills that we sometimes only preach.
In this article, we’ll explore the product management best practices that turn into pitfalls in our culture of burnout, plus how we can better engage these skills to sustain our careers.
The crisis of burnout in product teams
In a new study published in Forbes, it was revealed that seven out of 10 tech employees are considering quitting over the next year; 30% of those are because of burnout.
Christina Maslach, the pre-eminent researcher on burnout and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, has identified six factors in total that cause burnout. An unmanageable workload is only one of these factors.
The remaining five are:
- Lack of autonomy: Employees are not equipped to make decisions, access the resources they need or dictate their focus.
- Insufficient reward: Employees don’t receive adequate extrinsic or intrinsic recognition in exchange for their work.
- Lack of fairness: Success in the organization is driven more by relationships and favoritism than by performance; employees are not on even footing.
- Breakdown of community: Teams have difficulty communicating or connecting with one another.
- Values conflict: Employees’ personal values are at odds with those of the organization.
As a coach to product teams, I’ve also observed that frequently-changing expectations can wear people down. Those delivering, in particular—our designers and developers—may feel disappointed when otherwise good work goes to waste amidst changing priorities.
The conclusion of the research? Burnout is caused by the environments in which we operate, not our shortcomings as people. Read: A well-rounded personal growth plan.
A more nuanced take on burnout
As product managers, what can we do about this? Campaign to cut scope. Improve processes. Recognize our teammates and ask for feedback. In the worst case, leave and head to another organization with a slower pace or better leadership.
Changing environments is not always a perfect fix—and I know this because I’ve coached executives through burnout even within healthy cultures.
Let’s take a deeper look at the root causes behind burnout.
Maslach’s inventory speaks to a dearth of personal agency. It speaks to conflict and lack of belonging. It speaks to feelings of unfairness.
Compare this to a team experiencing psychological safety. Teams with a high degree of psychological safety, first and foremost, feel safe. They experience tolerance for mistakes, a sense of being heard, a sense of autonomy, transparency, and trust. Discover insights on building extraordinary product teams.
All of these factors, you’ll notice, appeal to our emotions. The environmental factors that cause burnout matter only because they are so influential over our emotional wellbeing.
In other words, burnout may be caused by external disorder, but it’s ultimately a subjective experience. Our relationship to the stressors in our work matters more than the work itself.
Why wait for the context to be different before we can feel better?
If we can increase our capacity to thrive even in challenging environments, we not only create more resilient wellbeing for ourselves; we will have more capacity to effect change for our colleagues and employees, as well. This is where our essential product management skills come into play.
How to optimize for wellbeing
To be clear, I am not advocating that anyone stay in a toxic work environment. Nor am I advocating for working unreasonable hours or in any way that is detrimental to your health.
But I would like us to honestly assess our performance on some of the most-lauded skills of the product world—because these are precisely the skills that can enable us to create healthier relationships to our work.
For all our talk of failing fast, how comfortable are we, really, with failure?
For all our talk of saying no, how discerning are we, really, with our own time?
For all our talk of being data-driven, how often do our decisions come from logic?
Emotions not only inform our experience; they guide our decisions to such an extent that if the emotional center of the brain is damaged, a person becomes incapable of decision-making.
It’s little wonder, then, that we sometimes lapse on these best practices.
We live from our limbic brains. Our subconscious conditioning, beliefs and even trauma filter up to create an emotional response to our environment, and in turn, impact our behavior.
If you’re really honest with yourself, how often do you find yourself engaging in the following product management pitfalls?
Rate yourself honestly on these four habits
I invite you to take inventory by scoring yourself on each pitfall.
0 = I never do this.
1 = I sometimes do this.
2 = I frequently do this.
I default to “yes” when the answer is not an obvious “no”
We revere the idea of “saying no.” But how about when we have something to prove, or a relationship to protect?
- If a friend at work asks for a favor, are you inclined to help automatically?
- If you’re offered the chance to work on a shiny, new object, do you pause to consider how it suits your priorities, or what it might displace?
- If the request is small, does it feel easier to do it than to disappoint the person asking?
- If the request comes from someone above you, do you question it?
I underestimate time or overestimate my own capacity
We strive to make healthy and grounded estimates for delivery, but expect ourselves to deliver in superhuman timing.
- Do you jump right into your day before reflecting on what’s most important?
- Do you dedicate an hour to a task only to find it takes 3-5x that? (e.g. the Dunning-Kruger effect)
- Is your “Getting Things Done” system really just one ever-growing to-do list? Do you have your own personal “definition of done”?
I carry the weight of the world at work
We know that failure is necessary in order to iterate, but internalize the responsibility we hold for our team.
- Do you sometimes make standard problems—e.g. a missed deadline or bugs in a release—mean something about your skills as a product manager?
- Do you criticize yourself for your weaknesses or mistakes?
- Do you ever secretly wonder if you’re cut out for product management?
I do my best to avoid conflict
We know that creativity emerges from divergent thinking, but rarely embrace conflict as an opportunity to create understanding and connection.
- Do you ever censor yourself from sharing your full opinion?
- Do you aim not to offend or upset people on your team?
- Do you vent your grievances to a neutral third party, rather than say what needs to be said to the person who needs to hear it?
Go ahead and tally your score. If it’s above a 0, you’re in good company, and importantly: you’re not a bad product manager. You’re human.
Setting boundaries, asserting our true opinions, creating solutions from conflict—all the hallmarks of strong product management—represent some degree of emotional risk.
Even as data-driven and logical people, we are susceptible to our emotional urges to fit in and feel adequate. Doing the right thing can be secondary to doing the less confrontational thing.
Growing your tolerance for emotional risk
If we’re to avoid these pitfalls, enact best practices, and protect ourselves from burnout, we must learn to regulate our stress response and build our tolerance for emotional risk.
There are many great resources on regulating stress, from breathwork to power posing, but I like to teach my clients a tool known as tapping, because it can be targeted at specific stressors.
For example, if you were to sit with each of the pitfalls above and ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen if [I were to practice more discernment]?”
Write down your response, and then imagine it happening. How much stress does this imagined worst-case scenario cause you, 0-10, with 10 being the strongest?
You can apply the tapping technique to that specific stressor, repeating it until the stress of the imagined scenario is reduced.
You can practice it in a moment of stress, as well. The next time you find yourself facing one of the pitfall scenarios above, pause and breathe deeply. Perhaps incorporate some tapping. Settle your emotional state before you respond.
As you practice this, you build a buffer between yourself and your environment. You build the resilience and resourcefulness you need to make healthy changes for your team and your career.