The term ‘product owner’ is often described as a ‘user/customer advocate’, and for good reason. Product owners are the people who spend time understanding their customers, identifying their needs and wants, and figuring out how best to meet those needs.
Product owners are also the bridge between the stakeholders and the Scrum team. It’s a role that has relationship management as one of its key functions.
Therefore, instrumental in building, maintaining, and strengthening relationships is the Product Owner’s ability to exhibit empathy.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is about walking in someone else’s shoes and approaching a subject from that individual’s point of view. If a product owner lacks empathy, they will struggle to fully understand what the customer needs.
Without empathy and this higher level of customer understanding, it is likely the Product Owner will miss out on opportunities to improve their products and services.
In any engagement with customers, it's important for Product Owners (and designers) to take time before they start working together so that they can better understand their needs as users.
It’s why UI/UX designers perform user interviews and testing, whether it’s for a new website or a product. It’s also why user interviews are integral in the Lean Startup process and core to a Design Sprint.
Performing this properly requires both formal and informal research methods such as user observation, interviews, or usability tests. Once this research has been conducted, you'll be better equipped to create something that meets those needs.
And you can only meet those needs if you understand them first.
Why is empathy important?
Empathy is the most important skill a Product Owner must have. It is, arguably, more valuable than any technical expertise or leadership qualities.
Why? Because empathy enables you to understand your customers and market, which leads to better products and outcomes for your team. It also enables you to understand the perspectives, needs and wants of the team and stakeholders to better manage expectations when working toward a customer-centric solution. A Product Owner must manage and oversee all of this.
If you want to be an effective Product Owner, here's why empathy should be at the top of your list:
- Empathy helps you understand customers' needs so that they can be met with the right solution
- Empathy helps you understand how people will use your product so that it works in their favour
- Understanding how people use products makes them easier to develop, which saves time and money while improving user experience (UX)
- The more highly developed UX is, the better chance there will be for return on investment (ROI). This means that users stay longer on websites/apps because they find them useful - which can translate into better sales
Skills can be taught but empathy is more complicated.
Unfortunately, a person with low empathy may not even realise this fact about themselves. They may notice how frequently they ruffle the wrong feathers or agitate people, but they lack the empathy to recognise it for what it is.
It’s akin to a chicken or egg situation. You require empathy to recognise when you are making people unhappy, but you can’t understand why those people are unhappy because you lack the empathy to understand that what you’re doing is making others unhappy.
Fortunately, it’s not a hopeless situation.
There are a few scientific ways to measure empathy. The most common is through the Empathy Quotient (EQ) test. These are 60 questions that will assess your EQ level in relation to scenarios involving people in different situations.
But the test is only a start. It’ll tell you your EQ rating, but you need to delve deeper to properly measure empathy.
How to measure missing empathy
There are numerous ways and tools put forth by renowned psychologists to measure empathy in different people. There’s the Empathetic Scale (Hogan,1969). There’s the Questionnaire Measure of Emotional Empathy (QMEE; Mehrabian & Epstein, 1972), the Autism Quotient (Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright Skinner, et al., 2001) and more.
To fully understand and measure empathy on a scientific level, it may be necessary to immerse yourself in the above studies and perform the quizzes/tests preferably with a specialist.
But, most people, understandably, don’t have that kind of time. And when dealing with the busy professional, it’s imperative to start on a more manageable level.
In the interest of keeping things simple, we’ll look at renowned psychologist, Paul Ekman. Voted one of the 100 Most Influential people in the world by Time magazine, Ekman’s studies helped to categorise Empathy into three simple categories:
Cognitive empathy, also known as empathic accuracy, is simply understanding what the other person is feeling and thinking. You can take their perspective. You can see they are sad, or happy. An example would be if your spouse doesn’t get the promotion they were working for, you can determine they are sad or disappointed about it. You can also recognise their talents and competency and feel that they should keep trying because that promotion can still happen.
But cognitive empathy alone isn’t enough to form an emotional connection. For that, you’ll need:
Emotional empathy is represented physically. When someone is sad or hurts themselves, you feel the pain or discomfort as if it happened to you. Having emotional empathy allows you to not just understand what they feel (cognitive) but now, you can put yourself in the same emotional headspace as the consumer by feeling their pain points.
This is the bridge between cognitive and emotional empathy. The Product Owner is able understand and feel from the user’s perspectives without being overwhelmed by bias to effectively solve the problem. Having compassionate empathy means we are moved to help however we can.
It is almost like a problem-solving switch that goes on. An individual with compassionate empathy would be moved to give money to someone who needs it. Or, if a person requires help with work at the last minute, the individual with compassionate empathy will provide what help they can. With compassionate empathy, the individual is able to take a step back from the situation that the other person is facing and ask the practical question of, “how can I help them?”
Empathy is an important characteristic not everyone has. Society doesn’t quite lend itself these days to creating empathic, caring individuals given its fast-paced and dog-eat-dog mentality.
But it is possible to learn to become more empathic.
Empathy is a skill you can learn and measure
In addition to the above three categories, when learning to become empathic, one should also practice self-awareness and self-control.
Be aware of how people react around you and the things you say to them. When you find yourself making too many uncomfortable comments or are told you are rude often, practice self-control when the next impulse comes.
This isn’t a case of loving yourself and expecting others to accept you, warts and all.
It’s about being a better, professional individual so you can do your job well without hurting the reputation of the company and more importantly, your reputation. Furthermore, practicing good habits will bleed into your personal life.
Unquestioningly, there is a lot of debate about what empathy is and how important it is for Product Owners.
The answer is simple: empathy is the most important skill that a Product Owner must have.
It's not just about being nice but understanding others. It's about listening and being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes to create bespoke, usable solutions for them to make their lives better.
We hope that you’ve learned more about empathy and the importance of it in your professional and personal life. For Product Owners, you can’t escape the need to be an empathic individual.
If you’re not, there are ways to resolve this, both scientifically and naturally. Both requires you commit to it and are willing to take a step back to be honest with yourself to make meaningful changes. This is very important because as we discussed, a person who lacks empathy may not even know. But there are tell-tale signs to be aware of.
You may lack empathy if you:
• Are extremely critical of people
• Blame others or the situation rather than take responsibility of your own actions
• Find it hard to forgive and move on
• Say offensive things, then accuse others of being sensitive when they are offended
• Pursue your own agenda and ignore the opinions and perspectives of your teammates
• Are disinterested in the lives of the people around you if it doesn’t benefit you
• Don’t think about how your actions affect others
While not an exhaustive list, it should provide ample triggers if you find some resonance with them. Sometimes, you might have empathy but fail to exhibit it within a certain situation. It’s part of being human: we are defined by our emotions and ability to handle those emotions at that point of time.
The important thing is that you try to be better. Especially, when you’re a Product Owner, then empathy and objectivity are necessary bedfellows.
So, when people say that being a Product Owner is a hard job, they’re right. But if empathy isn’t in your toolkit, then the job is harder than it needs to be.