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The Psychology of Product Management

When describing the PM role to an audience that is not familiar with it, I used to ask them to imagine a role that was 50% project management and 50% marketing. This is a huge simplification but gives the audience a way of starting to understand it in terms they are already familiar with.

For an experienced product person, this definition doesn’t really capture what she does. And the main reason? There are so many soft skills we use every day, skills that reflect our ability to relate to  and influence people that are not really covered by that definition above. This made me reflect why had I not seen more posts on The Psychology of Product Management.
The real truth is that a great product person will:

  1. Have huge empathy for the customer or end-user and know their jobs-to-be-done
  2. Understand the goals, ambitions, fears of all the major stakeholders (sales teams, marketing teams, legal teams, regional teams, cross-functional teams etc)
  3. Be able to create a sense of ownership and common purpose with the creators (engineering and design teams)
  4. Manage upwards effectively, know what matters to their boss, be able to secure the necessary resources and align the teams work toward objectives
  5. Develop a vision and describe it to people in a way that engenders both interest and comprehension.

By examining this list, it is obvious that the product role is therefore not only about process. Don’t get me wrong, having an effective process that helps the product team to plan and the dev team to deliver can be a huge success factor. But it is rarely enough. When you have teams of highly-trained, highly-intelligent people all working on complex items at the same time, you need a combination of vision, motivation, communication, transparency, co-operation, confidence and belief to make it work.

There is a set of soft skills that the best product people have. But the good news is that a large part of these are not traits that you are born with, they are traits that can be learned. The first step is to be aware of what is required, the next step is to analyse which traits or skills you have and which are lacking. Visit our website to know more. The last step is to identify how any gaps can be filled and there are resources everywhere these days to help you do that.

The Psychology of Working With People


For the rest of this post, I will define the key psychological elements of being a great product person:

  1. Influencing skills
  2. Leadership skills
  3. Being able to Motivate
  4. Emotional Intelligence
  5. Understanding/Creating Culture
  6. Managing Change
  7. Building Teams

Probably the most important part of working effectively with other people is being able to influence them, a skill that is possible only after you are capable or real listening and real understanding and empathy of that person’s position. I know that personally my influencing skills have become much better with age, so I fully believe this is something that anybody can get better at. We no longer live in the factory-based world of direct control where the boss tells the employees what to do, certainly not in the product world. Rather, we have the need to persuade and influence people so they believe they are working on delivering products that they believe in.

And although the people in our team are not our direct reports a lot of the time, that does not mean that the PM does not have a leadership function. We do. When you supply the vision, the direction, the backlog, the priorities, then the team look at you as someone worth following (if you do a good job). There is still a conscious choice; a team member can follow you or resist you. And this is a daily phenomenon. A team member might follow you at the start of the week and then take strong exception to a decision later in the week.  Why should anyone follow you? Hopefully because your values and beliefs are consistent with creating something that the team wants to create, but there is a skillset in dealing with the challenges.

I think a huge part of this comes down to motivation. Different things motivate different people. And there is a few different states; demotivated, nuetral and motivated. Being demotivated is like being punched in the stomach, being nuetral is like waiting at the bus stop alone for an hour and being motivated is like working on your dream project. They are that different, and a good PM can effect this.

It is worth saying that motivation is one element of emotional intelligence,   the others being Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Social Awareness and Social Skills (Daniel Goleman). When a crisis happens and the shit hits the fan, you are the one who needs to be in control with a cool head and being able to re-assure others. You need to not lose your temper, be socially inappropriate and know your own strengths and weaknesses.

Another key skill for product people is to be able to understand, fit into, align and create the right culture for the organisation you are in. Being a consultant for two and a half years, I worked in many different companies sometimes for a few weeks or a few months and the biggest skill I acquired was being sensitive to what the culture was in the company I just walked into. You want to be able to gauge this so that you can work in it in a way that does not upset people. And perhaps if the culture isn’t right, you want to be able to change it, which takes time and patience. Managing change is a skill onto itself, but one you will need at some point.

As well as changing the culture of an existing team, you will also need to be able to build teams. This can be new people into an existing function (scaling the team or building a completely new team) or can be on a leadership level (building a cross-functional team). This all depends on company size and the job you are trying to do. Retaining talent is often as much about building the right team in the first place, or adjusting teams so they have the right balance.

The Psychology of the End Customer

Another whole area of psychology that is relevant to the area of product management is that the mental processes of the end customer. This is a chapter onto itself, but it is something I’ll talk about in a future post because it has certainly moved from fringe to mainstream in the last two years and is a fascinating topic.

If you have any thoughts about the way psychology has influenced your product management, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

About the author

Patrick Patrick O’Malley is an Internet and web professional passionate about building products that people love.

Now a product based consultant, he is ex-Head of Product, Yahoo! Answers, ex-Head of Operations MoveMe and an Imperial MBA.

Based in Paris (a bit) and London (a bit).

You can follow him on and Twitter or check his bio

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