Although they probably weren’t written into your job description, as a product manager your role includes such key responsibilities as relationship building and conflict resolution. After all, to bring successful products to market you will need ongoing support and dedication from a wide range of constituents — executives, developers, sales and marketing teams, customers, etc. And these constituents will often have conflicting priorities relating to your product roadmap, and sometimes even problems with each other or with you.
“Does your company even bother to test its products for bugs?”
—One of your customers
“How are we ever supposed to make money with that?”
—One of your executives
“You guys never give us enough time to do our work!”
—One of your developers
So how can you deal with these inevitable conflicts, without allowing your products or your company’s strategic objectives to suffer as a result?
Below is a product manager’s blueprint for conflict management. But before we delve into the details, let me give away the punchline. The following principle informs most of the tips and suggestions below. If you take only one concept from this article, let it be this: The most valuable tool in your conflict management arsenal will be your ability to always remain calm. Keep reading to learn why this is so vital for effective conflict management — and, indeed, for a successful career as a product manager.
The Product Manager’s 5-Step Blueprint for Conflict Management
1. No matter how heated the situation gets, stay calm.
Product management is a marathon, not a sprint. For your products’ sake, you can’t afford to win the battle and lose the war. What do these clichés mean in terms of staying calm under tense circumstances? They mean that as your product’s primary champion, when it comes to product-related conflicts, you can’t afford to respond to negative emotion with your own negative emotion.
That’s because your success as a product manager depends on sustaining strong relationships and credibility over the long-term. Yes, if a developer aggressively pushes back on your timeline in a way you think is unreasonable, you can become even more aggressive in return, and win that argument. And yes, if a customer posts a nasty comment about your product on social media, you can respond with an equally hostile message stating your case, and you might even feel vindicated afterward. But in these instances, what have you actually won? And at what cost?
If your developer begins working under a timeframe he feels he was beaten into, he’s not likely to be as invested in the project, or in the future projects you will need his help with. You’re better off diffusing the tension in the timeline disagreement, rather than adding to it.
Likewise, no matter how good it felt in the moment to sting back at that customer’s nasty message, in the long run you’ve probably created an even angrier customer — one who is far less likely to continue being a customer and also less likely to recommend your product to colleagues and friends.
Another reason you always want to remain calm is that it’s simply the best way to get to the crux of the conflict, and resolve it. Keeping a heated conversation at the same level of tension, or even boosting the tension in the room by adding your own, only makes it more difficult for anybody to clearly identify the problem, and begin discussing rational ways to resolve it. Which leads to the next suggestion…
2. When disagreement turns to argument, your first job is to remove the emotion.
We’re not talking here about a rational, calm disagreement relating to your product. Such discussions are usually nothing to worry about. In some cases, in fact, they can serve as healthy exercises in which several parties all dedicated to your product — and all with unique vantage points — are advocating for what they believe is in the product’s best interest. Conversations like these can lead to better products.
It’s when disagreement turns into argument, when emotion comes into the discussion, that you need to step in and try to diffuse or remove that emotion. This is a vital step for several reasons.
“When disagreement turns to argument, remove the emotion.”
First, consider again your long-term objective: to build and maintain the teams you’ll need to deliver successful products to market. The sooner you can steer a personal, heated argument back on track — to a rational discussion about what’s best for your product — the less long-term damage your teams and company will suffer. Remember, think marathon, not sprint.
The second reason it’s so important to remove the negative emotion from a product-related argument is that when people are emotional, they are often not thinking as clearly as they do when they’re calm and rational. This makes it more difficult for you to zero in on what’s really troubling them or what they truly want. They might even lose sight of it themselves, if they become angry enough and get lost in the fight.
So, how do you remove the emotion from a heated debate or even a yelling match about your product? The following few tips offer specific ideas.
3. If someone is angry or has a complaint, first acknowledge their pain.
This might seem counterintuitive. If a sales rep launches into an angry tirade about features not included on your product roadmap, for example, your first reaction might be to defend your roadmap and the reasoning behind it. You are your product’s champion, after all.
But when you react this way, immediately pushing back with your own argument, you deprive the other person of feeling heard and understood — which in many cases is the cause of much of that person’s pain. Often, simply giving someone an opportunity to vent their frustration will diffuse the majority of that frustration.
Now imagine that instead of getting defensive after hearing a sales rep’s tirade — and shooting back, “We already discussed this, and the executive team insisted we focus on A and B for the next release; we don’t have resources to include C” — you simply listen. Really listen to her.
And when she’s stated her case, you calmly respond, “Everything you’re saying is completely logical and reasonable. Those features were going to be an important part of your pitch, and it must be difficult to know you’re still going to have to take the product out on sales calls without them for a while.”
What you’ve done here is invaluable in conflict resolution: You’ve validated the other party and acknowledged her frustration. You haven’t said yes — and indeed you won’t, because you can’t. But you have shown her that you heard her issues with the roadmap, agree that she has a legitimate issue, and wish you could help.
(Related Tip: In the above example, part of showing your sales rep you truly heard her issue was that you restated it. Restating the other party’s points or complaints is an important way to ensure they know you were really listening.)
Now, because you’ve acknowledged her pain, from this point forward your discussion will go a lot more smoothly.
Indeed, this sales rep is now more likely to really listen to you as you state your case — because you’ve set that tone for the conversation, by first listening to her. Also, because you remained calm as she argued, and you didn’t argue back, your rep is more likely to trust you. She’s more likely to understand your reasons for turning down her requests, and not assume they’re based on anger or defensiveness or other personal reasons.
Finally, by acknowledging this rep’s pain, and giving her a safe forum of vent her frustration at the situation, you’ve probably helped to preserve and maybe even strengthen your relationship over the long run.
4. Get to the core of the problem — “chunk down” or “chunk up.”
What happens when, even after calmly listening to a constituent’s angry argument or complaint, you’re not sure how you could possibly address the issue because it feels too nonspecific and enormous?
This often happens when people become emotional — they lose sight of the specific issue and “chunk up” the problem. So the fact that two sprints back your developers had to speed their timeline by a couple of days turns into “You never give us enough time to do our work!”
When this happens, your job is to zero in on the specific problem. Dig a level deeper — “chunk down” the problem. Bring the focus back to the issue at hand. Calmly ask your developer, “Okay, looking at this timeline we’re proposing, how many more days do you think you’ll need? Maybe we’re not as far apart as you think.”
Now you’ve taken the discussion from an emotion-based, impossible-to-fix, “you never give us enough time” problem, to a more rational conversation about the number of development days needed for a specific set of tasks. What follows should be a much more collaborative conversation.
Whenever you’re engaged in a disagreement and you hear words like “always” or “never” or “impossible,” your conflict management antennae should be up. Chances are the person has veered from a legitimate topic of discussion to a more emotional, general complaint. That’s when it’s time to employ this tactic — to calmly ask focused questions to get to the root of the conflict.
“Get to the core of the problem — ‘chunk down’ or ‘chunk up.'”
Similarly, you’ll that find a constituent who has a product-related argument or complaint has “chunked down,” meaning they have fixated on a single, small issue and can’t see beyond it.
The telltale signs of this will be a person in a product meeting who repeatedly returns to a single, highly specific point — a marketing VP, for example, who keeps insisting that “we really need a new shopping cart on our site.”
To uncover the core of this person’s issue, you need to move away from a detailed technical discussion about shopping cart vendors or an argument about what plug-ins work with your product’s backend. Your job here is to “chunk up” the problem, to find out exactly why this marketing VP is so set on swapping out shopping carts.
Maybe you’ll discover that his team has been doing research and discovered that your shopping cart abandon rate is higher than the industry standard. Not knowing why this is happening, your marketing VP might simply assume the issue is due to a bad experience with your shopping cart application.
By thanking the VP for the insight, and agreeing to look into why your abandon rate is above average, you can both diffuse a possibly negative situation and uncover the real source of the problem.
5. When you can compromise without undermining the product, compromise.
Finally, accept the fact that as a product manager you are often going to have to work with limited resources, under less-than-ideal circumstances, and go to market with a product that doesn’t have everything you’d hoped for.
So in those instances when you can make reasonable compromises in terms of what’s on your wish list in order to preserve your relationships and strengthen your credibility over time, doing so can be a smart strategy.
This, again, is the “win the war, not the battle” approach to conflict management. Yes, you can stand your ground and demand every feature on your product roadmap be coded by the next release, or push back on your sales team’s demand for more flexibility in pricing, or squeeze the technical publications group to complete their documentation a little sooner.
But if you can give a little instead, and show these all-important constituencies you understand their needs and limitations, it might be worth it for the long-term strategic benefit of deepening those relationships.
Proactive Bonus Tip for Conflict Management: Share Praise with Your Teams
This is a great approach generally for a successful career, but it can also serve as a valuable proactive step in conflict management — because it can help minimize or even prevent conflicts among your teams.
As a product manager, you will often be the one praised for your product’s successes — when it reaches customer or revenue milestones, when it wins industry awards, when it’s written up favorably by the trade press or analysts, when a big customer signs on, etc.
Your generosity in spreading the credit will go a long way in terms of strengthening your relationships, which will in turn naturally smooth out future conflicts among your teams. Everyone will feel more invested and connected together around a shared goal. Conflict is more common, and tension higher, among groups that don’t feel connected or appreciated.
Publicly share praise whenever and wherever you can. Thank your sales team when your product breaks a revenue record. Give kudos to your marketing department for their great campaigns, and your to developers for the product’s positive user feedback.
The more these constituents feel appreciated for their contributions, the more your product will be built around closely-knit teams rather than disparate silos separately completing their own tasks. Which means that when it’s time to bring everyone together to discuss the project, you’ll face fewer conflicts that require the steps above.
Do you have other conflict management recommendations? Share them in the comments section below.