Empathy: The Product Management Superpower

This statement is often said to discourage bad behaviour:
"Treat others the way you would want to be treated yourself."
Pretty straightforward, right? If you want to be treated in a certain, acceptable way, you should treat others that way too. Be nice to everyone, and everyone will be nice to you.
While it sounds good on paper, being uniformly nice to everyone does not translate well when implemented IRL.

The fallacy of being nice

Nice is not standardised — everyone's brand of niceness is not the same. Different people perceive things differently. In fact, cultural and professional biases, language barriers, and varied life experiences shape our individual definitions of what it means to be nice.
Hence, I believe that the quote should rather be:
"Treat others the way they would want to be treated."
Unless you understand and adapt to the different needs of the people around you, you can never be truly nice.

Embracing empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to the feelings of others; either by listening to them, or putting yourself in their place.
But what does empathy have to do with being a PM?
I'd say empathy has everything to do with product management. In fact, empathy is product management.

Learning empathy

Empathy is less moral value and more muscle. With enough focus and repetition, you can teach yourself to be more mindful and empathetic. Listening more, indulging in design empathy exercises, prioritising PMF, actively prototyping, defining personas, and creating empathy KPIs are some of the ways you can get started.

Why empathy for PMs?

One of the biggest problems plaguing product teams is working on solving the wrong problems. And without empathy, you will almost always end up missing out on insights about the best problem to solve, and/or the right audience to solve that problem for.
Here are my top reasons for adopting an empathy-first approach while leading product teams:
  1. Achieve better business metrics.
Instead of actively chasing numbers, a good Product Manager empathises with their customers and prioritise their needs.
And if your customers are happy, KPIs will follow automatically.
  1. See into the future
Empathy helps you avoid nasty surprises. If you can empathise with your stakeholders and learn to look through their lens, you can predict and stop fires even before they occur.
If you know a person well and empathise with them enough, you can (to an extent) predict their reactions to certain situations.
What is foresight if not empathy persevering?
Growing up as an active empath, I've almost never been surprised or caught off-guard. The only time I've been surprised was when my dad revealed I was left-handed as an infant. He used to give soft pinches to my baby butt every time I used my left hand, and reward me with candy when I used my right hand. It was his Pavlovian efforts that turned me into the right-hand preferring ambidextrous gentleman I am today.
And lastly,
  1. Build delightful products.
Listening with empathy begets mindful innovation. As a PM, you can reap the benefits of empathy by listening to your stakeholders. Have conversations with your team, your bosses, and your customers. Talk to them, figure out their needs, and create solutions that solve their pain-points. Keep your feedback loops as short as possible.
Shorter loops = faster validation = more touch-points to find and fix bad decisions.

Concluding thoughts

As a Product Manager, your experience ≠ expertise. In fact, the less experience someone has, the less baggage and biases they'll have.
I believe that a low ego high-agency person who can:
✅ wield unconditional empathy
✅ derive meaningful insights and
✅ make data-driven conditional decisions
is someone who can become a great PM!