6 ways product managers can unmask burnout and empower resilience
June 14, 2023
Product management can be a fulfilling and exciting career because you’re at the spearhead of discovery and innovation. Being an excellent product manager takes a lot of energy and commitment. The role requires cognitive and emotional power in order to inspire and motivate teams to create value for end-users and the business as you’re always identifying significant problems to solve and uncovering unexplored potential.
As Marty Cagan describes it:
“a great product manager will create products that are valuable for the customer, viable for the business, usable for the end-user, and feasible for the technology team. They should also foster a strong product culture, and continually strive for discovery and innovation.”
What is burnout?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. The Maslach inventory (MBI) model provides a way to conceptualize burnout as characterized by three dimensions:
- Emotional exhaustion: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
- Depersonalization: increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism towards the job.
- Reduced professional efficacy or sense of accomplishment.
First proposed in the 1970’s, burnout is the consequences of severe stress and high ideals experienced by people working in “helping” professions. We now know that burnout can happen in all types of careers and jobs, including product management.
Product Manager Burnout
The product manager is the nexus between various departments and has to work with all the functional teams within the organization. As a result, the product manager is always on demand, being the person that peers, stakeholders and executives turn to.
Due to the complex nature of the product manager role, I’ve found six factors that contribute to product burnout. I am not a mental health practitioner. So, I am sharing my suggestions from lived experience and how I continue to build my resiliency to burnout. Another resource I find helpful is a webinar by Simone Nili, Director of Product at CNN.
1. Cross-functional stress
The product manager is a bridge between multiple departments such as engineering, marketing, sales, and customer support. Balancing diverse interests, expectations, and timelines across these teams can generate unique stress. I recognize that, at times, leading meetings with teams and executives from other departments can be intimidating and overwhelming; especially when there are delays in feature releases or system issues that are impacting another team.
Build your resilience against cross functional stress:
I lead authentically, and that means creating an environment of respect, openness of ideas and understanding where we are all partners working towards a shared product vision. I practice the following:
- It’s OK to be vulnerable because it helps people connect with you. Admit when you don’t have an answer and then follow up when you have the information. Be curious by asking questions and seek to understand. Finally, ask for advice because interesting perspectives and solutions may come from those conversations.
- Foster a safe haven for curiosity by allowing team members to ask their questions without feeling judgment from others in the room. As the facilitator, you set the tone and example. I’ve found that non-technical individuals feel anxious when asking questions about the product, or specific features or functions that are confusing to them. It is in these moments that I serve as a bridge between engineers and the non-technical teams because most technical individuals are very good teachers. Allowing engineers to be the teachers not only helps for enablement, it also builds trust. So, leverage people’s expertise and position them to be helpful.
- Respect and value people’s time. People want to know that their efforts and contributions are seen. As a facilitator, make sure that your meetings are well organized and prepared. Communicate any decisions, outcomes, action items and notes from the meeting and highlight or call out those individuals who made contributions. Finally, I always express gratitude.
You might find yourself in the position of leading cross-functional teams for an important release. As a product manager, you don’t have authority over any particular individuals or teams, so your ability to influence and execute are key.
- I periodically check for alignment to ensure that we’re all working towards the same shared goal.
- Be helpful and remove roadblocks by using your position as a connector within your organization to get individuals the help that they need.
- Assess and re-adjust if needed by asking people how they’re doing and feeling, you can identify inefficiencies or areas of concern that can be corrected to improve everyone’s work experience.
Finally, ask for feedback. I find retrospective sessions to be helpful and use FigJam’s template for team retros.
2. Constant Context Switching
Given the fast-paced, dynamic nature of product development, product managers often deal with rapidly changing priorities, switching between multiple tasks, and solving multiple problems at the same time. A product manager requires a lot of cognitive bandwidth. However, the amount of context switching that an individual takes on is actually proven to reduce cognitive efficiency, decision fatigue, increased stress and is a risk for burnout.
Build your resilience against context switching:
I find that self-awareness is very important here and I’m constantly implementing strategies to reduce the mental load of context switching and boost productivity. Here are three actionable techniques that I find useful:
- Effective Time Blocking: Time blocking is a method where you allocate specific times of your day to particular tasks or projects. During these blocks, you focus solely on the assigned task, thereby minimizing the need for context switching.
- Take mindful breaks: Engaging in mindful activities like meditation, going for a short walk, or simply sitting quietly with a cup of tea can provide a much-needed mental break. According to the Harvard Business Review link, even a few minutes of mindfulness can rejuvenate your mind and improve focus when you return to work.
- Prioritize, delegate and automate: Build the habit of prioritizing by focusing on the tasks that matter most, without getting sidetracked by less important duties. Next, reduce your workload by delegating tasks to others if you’re in the position to do so. Finally, create processes and workflows that can be accomplished through various technology tools.
You won’t be able to escape context switching throughout your day. You can experiment with various methods to find the right strategies that work for you.
3. The “in-between” role dilemma
Product managers often find themselves in an “in-between” position — they carry the responsibility and accountability akin to a CEO for their product, but without the authority over people within the organization. Product managers need to constantly influence, motivate, inspire, and find ways to align people across multiple teams and departments. Product managers may consume a lot of energy, social capital and emotional bandwidth navigating between the interests of individuals and teams within their organization.
Build your resilience against the ‘in-tween’ role:
I believe in putting people first. I start by cultivating strong relationships by building trust with key stakeholders, the team and people across the organization.
In his book “The Speed of Trust”, Stephen Covey describes trust as the fundamental principle that is required for successful relationships. One of ‘the five ways of trust’, Covey suggest that:
‘Relationship Trust’ is all about consistent behavior. People judge us on behavior, not intent.
So, when trust is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective. The product manager spends less emotional energy. This in turn leads to an increased speed of operations and a decrease. Conversely, when trust is low, everything takes much longer to achieve. This can be a huge energy drain on a product manager and costs more, hence slowing down success.
Finally, I practice gratitude because people should feel ‘seen’ and recognized. Practicing gratitude is not just about saying ‘thank you’, or buying beers and donuts – it’s more about finding ways to allow the spotlight to shine on others than yourself. It’s about recognizing an individual’s talent and how they’ve contributed to the team. I practice gratitude both in one-on-ones and in team meetings.
4. The ‘pressure cooker’
Let’s face it, product management is a high pressure – high stakes job. The success or failure of a product can have significant implications for the business. Keeping up with the market, changes in the landscape, customer demands and competitors as well as being able to foresee new opportunities can feel like a product manager is living in a pressure cooker. This pressure, coupled with the fact that many factors affecting a product’s success are often outside their control, creates a unique stressor for product managers.
Build your resilience against the pressure cooker:
This might be the physicist in me speaking…I try identifying the “levers” that I can pull on in order to extend leverage as much as possible. In other words, you’re not expected to always be the source of all solutions. There are a lot of smart people thinking about the same problem in your organization. Bring them in, ask for advice or help, and they’ll feel involved and invested.
Try focusing on building a robust and iterative product development process. Acknowledge that failure is a part of the journey, and maintain a solution-oriented mindset. You should constantly leverage the expertise within your organization. Subject matter experts, analysts and your stakeholders are critical thought partners to the product manager. Empower your partners in design and engineering and cross-functional teammates to be problem-solvers instead of trying to be the sole driver of solutions. When your team is empowered to be solution creators, innovation is accelerated, and bonds are formed in high-stress, high stakes situations. Success (and failure) are shared, reducing mental anxiety and stress.
“Your mental health should be your #1 priority. Don’t leave it in the backlog.” – Simone Nili
It’s also important to identify your pressure release valves. Find stress management techniques that work for you such as regular exercise, mindfulness, hobbies and finding time for friends and relationships. Another idea is to leverage mindfulness apps or apps that connect you to therapists or coaches.
5. Imposter Syndrome
As a former scientist and academician, then startup founder – I have lived the effects of imposter syndrome and I’ve found a few ways to build resiliency against it.
A good product manager embodies the intersection of business, technology, and user experience and is able to make informed decisions based on these different considerations.
Given the breadth of product management, the role requires expertise or knowledge across various domains such as:
- customer knowledge
- market knowledge
- product expertise
- organizational knowledge
- technical knowledge
Product managers are the ‘go-to’ person that non-technical peers and executives turn to. This high knowledge-demand can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome – where they constantly doubt their abilities and fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.
In some cases, the role of a product manager can often be misunderstood or undervalued within a company, especially if the role is new or if the company culture is not product-focused. This can lead to feelings of isolation and frustration.
If left unchecked, imposter syndrome can erode away an individual’s self-confidence and sense of value, cause decision paralysis and lead to a self-fulfilling cycle.
Build your resilience from imposter syndrome:
One of my core values is high humility. I put that into practice by constantly being intellectually curious, yet kind and generous when sharing my expertise. I’m constantly learning how to balance this with the self-confidence that’s expected from a product manager in certain situations. So, it’s very important that I maintain self-awareness of any feelings of doubt and intellectual fear and address those immediately.
I recommend seeking feedback and mentorship regularly to help gauge your abilities accurately. Remind yourself of your accomplishments and growth. Use resources like Strength Finder to identify your talents. We live in a punitive society that focuses on deficiencies rather than strengthening an individual’s talents.
Participate in peer support groups or professional networks where you can share experiences and learn from others. Invest in your professional development. I’m a constant learner and I feel validation when I complete a certificate. So, I leverage short online courses or micro-learning apps.
If you’re feeling misunderstood, take the initiative to educate others in your company about the role and importance of product management. I found a helpful empathy exercise where cross-functional teams can participate. This facilitation provides various interactions where people from different departments can share their respective responsibilities, daily functions allowing them to demonstrate the value that they bring to the organization.
6. Customer and user empathy
The good, the bad and the ugly. A large part of a product manager’s role involves understanding and empathizing with users. Additionally, you have stakeholders and team members providing you feedback about the product or a feature. And then there is the constant list of issues, bugs and tech debt that are impacting the user’s experience with the product. As a product manager who feels and cares deeply for the user, life may seem like a constant negative feedback loop.
I’m an empath, and as such I can readily identify with a user’s or customer’s pain. The same goes for the pain that cross-functional partners who work with customers share on their behalf. This might seem great for solving problems as PMs constantly do. However, empaths need to be careful with boundaries. Continuously facing users’ frustrations and problems can lead to emotional drain – a phenomenon known as empathy burnout or compassion fatigue.
Build your resilience against user compassion fatigue:
I try to maintain healthy boundaries with a lot of self-control. As an empath, you feel deeply for another person’s pain and it’s easy to get swayed by it in the moment. This can make prioritization more painful and not to be a people pleaser, but empathy brings on another layer to saying ‘no’ to another teammate’s issue.
A solution I find most helpful is to share the responsibility of user interaction and feedback with your team to lessen the emotional burden. I have a lot of fun working with my partners in design during user testing and reading out the results from our user research.
I also use the analogy of hats to maintain my boundaries. As a former scientist, I’ll wear my ‘scientist hat’, to get in the right frame of mind to approach user feedback objectively. This works great when analyzing the voice of customer with analytical data.
Ultimately, I try to be mindful of the situation. If I am doing customer discovery, I turn up my empathy. I apply it to uncovering pain points, desires, motivations and understanding customer needs. Conversely, if the moment requires the boundaries to be objective and analytical, I step into that frame of mind by intentionally decoupling myself from the product or feature. Again, this is all about practice self-care and establishing emotional boundaries to prevent compassion fatigue.
My hope is that this post inspires you to not leave your mental health and resiliency in the backlog. As product managers, we should create the safe space to discuss and learn about mental we
llbeing and resilience, and find resources to help each other and your team.
Building up your self-awareness is important by periodically ‘checking in’ with yourself. Some questions to ask in your self-awareness inventory are:
- What’s currently draining me about my job?
- When am I taking time off or a break?
- Have I been constantly acting reactively or do I need to reorganize?
- Am I falling into a negative reinforcement loop?
And finally, assessing your level of burnout:
- Am I feeling emotionally drained? What is causing it?
- Have I been cynical lately about my job?
- Do I feel unaccomplished and how long have I felt this way?
Prioritize yourself and identify resources and put them on your roadmap for growth and success.