Best Practices

Why Empathy Is the Key to Success for Your Next Product Objective

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Bain Public blog.

The secret to success in software development is an elusive concept. Some companies spend years chasing it down.

But the secret to success isn’t something you can put a price tag on, stack on features, or advertise in a marketing campaign. The best asset for a product manager, and the number one determining factor in the success of a strategy, is the people behind the product.

You hear it often: human capital is a company’s best asset. It’s true⁠ — software development is mostly about cultivating personal relationships.

But there’s more to it than simply “hiring good people.”

It’s more like: “hire good people and listen to them.”

A product manager’s ability to listen to their office community has a significant impact on success. Being a good listener and empathizing with stakeholders is the facilitator for effective communication and moving together as a team.

We listen to people talk every day. But how often do we listen without thinking of ourselves, our own thoughts, or what we will say next?

True, uninterrupted listening is a skill few product managers have mastered. Most believe they are good listeners, when in fact, the average person only listens with about 25% efficiency. In a business world of ever-increasing demand, taking the time to listen can be challenging. In the context of software development, this article unpacks why being a great listener is important, why we’re so bad at it, and finally, provides suggestions for how to integrate empathy into the workplace as a product manager, particularly by capitalizing on the moments before and after meetings.

Why is being a great listener important?

Listening is a powerful tool. Giving complete, intentional focus to one person allows for an open, safe space to brainstorm. Show the team you listen, and they will flock to you with collaborative projects and new ideas. On a personal level, this can be quite beneficial. By leaving your own thoughts and feelings at the door and focusing on others, it allows you to de-stress and let go of any personal agenda.

Improving workplace relationships through listening indirectly encourages an increase in productivity. According to a report by Businessolver, a leading SaaS-based benefits administration technology, stakeholders are willing to give more time and energy to empathetic workplaces, with 77% of employees saying they would work longer hours for an empathetic employer, and 60% saying they would accept a lower salary. It’s no surprise that 92% of HR professionals say that a compassionate office community is a major factor for employee retention.

As a product manager, you work at the intersection of many different groups⁠: sales, development, marketing. With little common background knowledge, it’s very difficult to access and persuade stakeholders. By providing an open space to collaborate, you develop a greater ability to influence those around you. Decisions that are made as a result of an open, back-and-forth conversation are far more likely to succeed than those made in a 30-minute meeting where one person pitches an idea to a team of silent nodding heads. Learn to listen and you’ll transform from a mediocre to a marvelous product manager.

So why aren’t product managers being more empathetic at work?

If only the size of the ears could determine how well one listens! The challenge with empathy is that it can’t be quantified and therefore is difficult to evaluate. Because it’s so hard to measure, empathy is not overtly taught in schools, or as an on-boarding process in offices. Empathy is learned through personal interactions, whether it be at home, with friends and acquaintances, or with strangers.

Learning how to empathize is hard. Just like when learning any new skill, it requires patience, dedication, and mental and physical energy. This is difficult because we love talking about ourselves. On average, people spend about 60% of all conversations talking about themselves. On social media, this number jumps to 80%. For extroverted people, listening requires a conscious, forceful repression of words. It requires total self-control.

Because empathy is not formally taught, many product managers are unaware they lack it. This is problematic, as the first step to fixing the problem is acknowledging that there is one.

How to create empathy in the workplace

To some, empathy comes naturally. To others, it is a skill in desperate need of honing. The first step is understanding that empathy doesn’t appear overnight. There are small steps product managers can take to integrate empathy into the office community. The first step, and arguably the most important, is cherishing the conversations before and after.

Conversations before and after: A crucial opportunity

At Bain Public, it’s not all about the hard skills of software development. A principal coaching strategy is teaching product managers how to listen. It can be hard to slow down, to take the time to ask questions and listen to the answer without losing focus. The best time for listening is often not the meeting itself but the 5 minutes before and after. Those minutes of silence punctuated by squeaking, swiveling chairs, tapping toes, and clicking pens are opportune moments for brilliant discussion. Everyone is relaxed, hanging around, waiting. Why not use it as an opportunity to listen?

Jumping right into a meeting saves time, but it negates the emotions in the room. The product roadmap matters, but so do our personal stories. Use this time to talk about anything but work. Weekend plans, travel aspirations, hobbies. This sets the tone for relationships with stakeholders and the meeting to come, immediately creating an open, safe space to collaborate and share ideas. It allows you to influence others from a listener’s perspective.

There are a few other, simple ways to incorporate empathy into the office community:

Listen with your eyes and ears

Listening isn’t just about hearing. It’s about seeing. Body language says a lot about how a person thinks and feels. Take note of the physical behavior of people around you. Do they look you in the eye? Do they walk with their shoulders hunched or pulled back? Do they fiddle with their hands when speaking? A key part of empathy is understanding what goes on in the minds of others. Pay attention to tone of voice, eye contact, and body language and you will have a better understanding of colleagues.

Master the art of asking questions

Even in a world where bits of communication are flying back and forth constantly, it can be hard to have an honest conversation one-on-one. Good listening skills include staying quiet while the other person is speaking while showing signs you understand (nodding or agreeing with “mhmms”), and occasionally asking “what” and “how” questions. These questions should be to clarify what the other person is saying; “To be clear, what you’re saying is…?” This can also be done by repeating, word-for-word, what they have just said. Asking questions helps you have a better understanding for the person, and shows you care enough to actively participate without interrupting.

Don’t assume anything

Passing judgment on others stops empathy dead in its tracks. Put any preconceived notions aside for a minute and take stakeholders at face value. We all have stories — some of them more difficult than others. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Be open-minded. If a new engineer is having trouble staying on top of work, or if someone in sales blows up blackmailing you with a potential client feature request, consider getting their explanation first before jumping to conclusions.

Empathy goes a long way. By showing stakeholders the attention and respect they deserve, and taking advantage of those crucial moments before and after meetings, you create a much more symbiotic office community. With less than half of all stakeholders saying their offices lack empathy, there is still much improvement to be done. At Bain Public, teaching empathy to product managers is a key element to our strategy. The importance is just as much in the people as it is in the product.