Every job or organisation comes with its own pressures and challenges. Millions of people will have a bad day at work, some people probably more frequently than others :) That said, I believe that being a product manager can be one of the more frustrating roles out there. The same things that make product management such a great craft are the ones that can make the life of a product manager one filled with frustrations:
- Constant navigation between all sections of the business
- Interacting with a wide range of stakeholders
- Being accountable without authority
- Working in fast paced and high pressure environments
- Regular dealings with complexity and uncertainty
Some product managers will suffer from frustration more than others and each person will have his or her own way of dealing with it but there are tools can help and so below I’m going to outline a number of tools that I use to try and manage some of the frustrations that I find can come with the day job.
A personal confession first
I definitely get frustrated. I like to think that I’ve come a long way in managing this, but I realise that it’s something I’ll always need to be mindful of and work on. When I reflect on some of the causes that have triggered my frustrations in the past, they tend to come down to the following triggers:
- Things not going to ‘plan’ — I must admit, as much I know rationally that in product management things hardly ever go to plan or pan out the way you expect, I used to get quite frustrated when this was the case.
- Taking things personally — Almost by default, as a product manager you’re accountable when a product isn’t performing or doesn’t live up to expectation. I really struggled with this, especially at the beginning of my product career as I’d take things highly personally. As a result, I’d get very deflated and defensive.
- Missing a shared sense of urgency — Whenever I sense — rightly or wrongly — that other people are not pulling their weight, it can really get my back up. I love working in teams where there’s a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, and I sometimes find it tough when I feel that shared sense is missing somewhat.
Sounds familiar? I’ve come across plenty of product managers over the years who’ve been very open with me about their frustrations, so I know that I’m not unique in this respect and that it’s worth looking at some ways to cope with frustrations …
1. Learn about your triggers
The first ‘tool’, I’d highly recommend is to identify the situations or people that trigger a frustrated feeling within you. What triggers an emotional reaction in you, why? For example:
- Meetings with ‘difficult’ stakeholders
- Feeling that you’re stuck, struggling to see a way forward
- A product or feature not performing as hoped
- Colleagues feeling frustrated or pressured
- A comment or criticism by a colleague
- Other people not meeting your standards or values
If you know what tends to strike a nerve or when you might be at risk, you’re in a much better position to pre-empt the trigger from having an impact, i.e. causing a negative feeling. For example, when I know that a conversation with a stakeholder is likely to be a tricky one, I’ll catch a few minutes of fresh air beforehand or have think about how to best approach the meeting.
In an ideal world, we’d totally avoid situations which might trigger us. But this isn’t possible in reality, and knowing your coping mechanisms for when triggers do strike, can be incredibly helpful.
2. Big I / little i
Since I was first introduced to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (‘CBT’) about 20 years ago, I’ve been using CBT tools and techniques on a daily basis to manage my emotions and behaviours. For instance, where I used to take negative feedback very badly, I’m now much better at taking things on the chin and learning from feedback, using the “Big I / little i” method that’s commonly used within CBT (see Fig. 1 below).
Fig. 1 — “Big I / little i”, Taken from: https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/
The “Big I / little i” technique is essentially about decoupling mistakes or perceived criticism from who you are as a person. For example, if I make a mistake in communicating with others, this doesn’t make me a bad person (“Big I”), it’s one of my many acts and behaviours, and one that I can look at and improve (“little i”).
3. Write. It. Down.
Have you ever been frustrated at work and your frustration turned into something much bigger: you feeling very deflated about your product, your colleagues, your job, etc. Before you know it, something that started as a molehill quickly evolved into Mount Everest. Whenever I want to stop my spiralling frustrations, I take a minute to grab my notebook and write it down.
I’ve learned how the mere act of jotting your thoughts down on paper quickly, can be incredibly helpful in gaining perspective and blowing off steam. If you’d like to add some more structure to your thoughts, then I’d highly recommend the “Cognitive Journal” which is part of the CBT toolkit (see Fig. 2). Journalling the “Activating Event”, “Beliefs”, “Consequence” and “Disputing” (‘A-B-C-D’) helps to not only capture what happened but also to look inward to figure out which personal beliefs were trigged and its consequences. For example:
A — Your boss tells you that she isn’t happy with the product feature that was just released to market.
B — You believe that your boss now sees you as incompetent and you feel that you’ve failed.
C — “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.”
D — “No way is my boss going to fire me!” Prior to this feature, I’ve helped create many products our customers love.
It’s easy and totally human to spiral into fatalistic thinking. Thoughts like “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.” Writing these thoughts down can help to make you reflect, and successfully challenge your negative thinking (“Disputing”). See it as a valuable “pause” moment, whereby you temporarily put a specific goal on hold and stop asking “What do I next?”
Fig. 2 — “Cognitive Journal”, Taken from: https://www.1alliancecps.com/wordpress/2013/09/02/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-cognitive-journaling-using-the-abc-model/
4. (Radical) Acceptance
In the book “Emotional Intelligence”, internationally renown psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the process of ‘emotional hijacking’, and describes how we as humans can be taken over by our emotions. In my view ‘emotional hijacking’ implies that it’s ok for a person to accept their emotions and whatever caused the emotion to take over. Is there no limit to acceptance of your emotions!?
Upsetting others — deliberately or accidentally — is something I’ll always try to avoid. Naturally, I can’t control how other people perceive my sharing of emotions, but it’s something I’ve become more mindful of over the years. For example, when I just started out as a product manager I used to really voice my anger or frustration to such an extent that the other person would be fearful of me … Realising this, made feel upset in turn since my goal wasn’t to scare or upset people, in my mind I was just being honest and open.
I’ve learned a lot from reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, particularly about the best ways to accept the emotions I’m feeling or thoughts I’m thinking on my own, as this helps me to effectively take the sting out of the moment and have less of a negative impact on the emotions of others. Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that I’ve become a wallflower and that I only speak in dulcet tones :) but I will take a minute or say to try and think before I talk or share my emotions (I’ve written about this previously).
Acceptance also means accepting your flaws and mistakes, and helps to accept things not going to plan or serious mistakes that you’ve made. Again, acceptance doesn’t mean that you simply resign to failure or a bad situation. In contrast, acceptance of a problem or a bad decision can make you see it for what it is, and be more constructive about it. For example: What can you do to solve a problem? What can you do to improve a situation? What will you do differently next time?
Amanda, a product person who I really look up to, told me once when I was upset that we as product managers act as problem solvers, irrespective of whether we’ve created the problem or not. And her saying this really helped me to understand that there’s no point just fighting or denying a problem. Instead, we should focus on what we can do to undo or improve things.
5. A word of warning
I wish I could say that I always lead by example when it comes to managing my emotions and practice what I preach 24//7.
It was only last week where I showed my frustration in front of my team and in hindsight I wasn’t happy with the way in which I’d expressed my frustration with what I felt was a lack of urgency and commitment. The point I’m making here is that eradicating frustrations or emotions completely is nigh-on impossible and possibly not even desirable.
“Honesty” and “Authenticity” are two of my core values which means that I’ll always try to say how it is and stay true to myself. I’ve therefore accepted that I might say or do things that might not sit well with other people and their personal values. However, I’m constantly learning to be mindful of other people, their beliefs and ways of doing things. Managing my own frustrations first helps me to better manage my own emotions, and get the most out of the people that I work with — in the right way. My hope is that you’ll find some of the aforementioned tools helpful in managing your own emotions.
Related links for further learning: