A few years ago, I worked with a client in a very hierarchical organization. Position and title were very important at the organization, and everything was done in strict accordance with operating procedures. My team had been brought in to teach a new way of working, and to show how it’s possible to move quickly.
We quickly discovered what we were up against when we attempted our first small task: scheduling user interviews. We were building an internal tool and we wanted to talk to some of the people on the front line, to understand how they did their jobs, and uncover challenges we could help to solve. We were supposed to go through our most senior point of contact to schedule these interviews – we’ll call her Jessica – so she could convince the right people to let us talk to their teams. The only problem: Jessica was out of town for a week, and we knew waiting a week to start the conversations would put us behind.
So in the spirit of agility and getting things done, we did what we thought was the best way forward – we worked with another contact on the team to help us schedule the interviews. He was able to talk to the necessary people, and we got interviews lined up for a few days after Jessica returned. This would be a big win… right?
We received a call the day before leaving for the customer interviews: Jessica was furious. She was incredibly angry that we had gone “behind her back” to arrange the interviews. She made it clear that we were to go through her and get all plans approved by her from here on, no matter how small they were. In one action, we had lost a supporter and a fair amount of team autonomy, and we were completely baffled why she was so upset. Weren’t we there to show how to work more quickly? The other leaders hadn’t needed the convincing we’d thought they would need, and we’d arranged the interviews – why did it matter who had made it happen?
My immediate reaction was to mentally label Jessica as “one of those people” who was evidence of everything wrong with this organization, and proof of why it wouldn’t change. I assumed her anger was formed out of ego. But knowing this was the beginning of a project and we really needed Jessica to work with us if we wanted to be successful, I dug in deeper.
Using 5 Whys to Understand Anger
I was having such trouble understanding why Jessica was angry, I decided to approach the situation as I would with a lot of product problems: analyzing the user behavior. One technique that is often used is called the 5 whys – asking the question “Why” around a situation five times to try and get past superficial understanding to the root cause. In product, this may manifest itself like this:
- Customers are abandoning their cart. Why?
- Because there are too many steps in the process. Why did that matter?
- Because they were on mobile. Why did that matter?
- Because they were trying to purchase this while on bad wifi at a coffee shop and each page took too long to load. Why did the pages take too long to load?
- Because we’ve added several cookies to the page for retargeting
The goal is to get to the root cause of the problem (too many retargeting cookies making pages load slowly) rather than fixing the first symptom (too many steps). What does this have to do with my angry stakeholder?
I started to ask myself: “Why was Jessica mad?”
- Because we went around her and scheduled user interviews without her knowing. Why did that make her mad?
- Because she was supposed to be our primary contact. Why did that matter?
- Because when someone asked her about the interviews that had been scheduled, she didn’t know about them. Why did that matter?
- Because it made her look like she wasn’t doing her job. Why did that matter?
- It hurt her credibility
At the end of the day, Jessica wasn’t actually mad about the interviews. She was mad about her credibility. If you remember, this was a very hierarchical organization, where credibility was everything. When I understood that, I was able to empathize with Jessica’s frustration, and see where I had (unintentionally) legitimately hurt her. This understanding enabled us to talk through how we might do things differently in a way that achieved both our goals, without Jessica needing to be consulted over every action.
Empathy is not Just for Customers
In her keynote at MTP Engage Hamburg, Julia Whitney talked about how humans perceive social threats and rewards with the same intensity that we experience physical threats and rewards. And when faced with threats, we become worse at decision making, collaboration, and problem solving – the three most important things that product managers need to be successful.
As product people, we regularly have to make decisions with the potential to be perceived as “threats” to other people in the organization. From telling a stakeholder the feature they wanted won’t be prioritized next, to telling our engineering team that the code they thought was finished isn’t ready to be shipped, we must continually manage through a variety of conflicting motivations and personal challenges with our colleagues. We have to be able to build empathy with our stakeholders and understand their motivations in order to foster positive relationships.
As a bonus, I’ve started to use the 5 Whys to understand my own frustration at times. We all have situations where we get what seems like irrational anger over something silly. Asking myself why an interaction made me angry has helped me to uncover its cause. When we’re able to understand the real reason for anger – whether in others or ourselves – it positions us to have better conversations, and to shape feedback in a more actionable way. This thoughtful approach to anger can help you navigate sticky situations with stakeholders, whether you meant to cause a problem or not.