We’re All Human

Lauren Chan Lee
5 min readAug 4, 2021

Olympians or GOATs, they’re just like us

Photo by Kyle Dias on Unsplash

Many new and aspiring product managers think that the secret sauce to success in product management is being technical. They’re wrong. So much of product management is really about interpreting human emotion — when you’re understanding users, interacting with team members, and managing stakeholders. Product management is about people.

And working with people means understanding humanity. Recently, the bold actions of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles to take time for their mental health have reminded us how everyone is human. Nobody — not users, coworkers, celebrities, or even GOATs — can live up to being put up on a pedestal.

Here’s what product managers can learn from GOATs:

Recognize what you have the power to change

Naomi Osaka attempted to set boundaries by announcing that she would not participate in press conferences during the French Open due to mental health reasons. The tournament responded by fining her $15,000, and threatening more severe consequences for her refusal to fulfill her media obligation. As a result, Osaka realized that as a player, she lacked control to change the rules of the tournament, but that she still had agency. She decided to drop out.

As product managers, we are put in the same position that Osaka was in. We want our users to do something, try to influence them to do it, but ultimately cannot control their actions. The account creation process of any website or app is a great example. We want users to have a secure account, so we beg them to set a good password. We provide helpful hints like “Use a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols.” and “Don’t reuse passwords!” We even give display feedback on the strength of their password.

But having strong and unique passwords are hard for users to remember, so many people ignore the advice and reuse the same, weak password across multiple sites. (If your password is “password1234”, you should really change it!) Once you understand that it’s just human behavior to want to avoid hard things, then you realize you can’t control the password users choose. As a PM, you can, however, control when users have to reset their password or when they have to use two-factor authentication to access their account, which in the end, achieves your aim of helping users have a secure account. Focus on what you can control to drive your product goals.

Realize that you might not see the full story

Simone Biles has dazzled the world with her incredible displays of athleticism and strength. She has been called the GOAT in the sport of gymnastics. That’s the external perception of Biles. In reality, the immense pressure of carrying “the weight of the world on her shoulders” was giving her the “twisties.” Everyone expected her to deliver for Team USA and bring back a slew of gold medals. Nobody knew her full story, what she was feeling on the inside, until she shocked the world by dropping out of the Olympics in the middle of the team competition.

Biles shows us that we have to look beyond the surface for the full story. When we interact with team members, a curt response or a disengaged participant might not be what it seems. When somebody responds to you in a manner that is out of character, ask yourself: is there something else happening?

A couple months ago, I had a check-in scheduled with one of my UX designers. It was a disaster. Strike 1: She showed up late. Strike 2: She hadn’t done any of the work that I was expecting to review. Strike 3: She seemed confused and unable to remember anything we talked about in the previous meeting. I was really disappointed that the meeting was a complete waste of time, and my initial reaction was that this underperformance needed to be addressed. But once I stepped back for a second, I realized that this was not a good representation of her usual self. It seemed like something was happening in the background of her personal life. So, I gave her a little space to sort through what was happening and then had another chat with her. I learned that she was in the middle of moving homes and that was causing her stress. With that visibility, we were able to adjust her workload for the next week, which helped her feel less stressed and helped me manage my expectations.

Communicate your vision of the upside

As the former gold medalist, Biles’ participation in the Olympics was hyped up as “defending her title”. Framing it in that manner created only downside for her. That’s significant because as humans, we are programmed to have a loss aversion bias. The pain of losing is psychologically twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. Since Biles had previously won gold, she felt a lot of pressure to not lose, with nothing to gain.

This critical insight applies to product managers working with stakeholders. If your stakeholders are stuck in a loss aversion mindset, they will be afraid of change. You have to motivate cross functional team members without authority, and you can bring out the best in your wider team by helping them see the vision of the upside. Help them understand: How will users be more satisfied and loyal? How will company performance be stronger? How will their contributions grow their career?

When I wanted to introduce a customer data portal, I heard a lot of concerns about the risks. For example, some stakeholders worried about how we would monitor and support the site. In order to bring the product to life, I had to reframe my stakeholders on how much our customers needed the data and how much using the data would improve their performance on the platform. Aligning on the upside gave us the motivation that we needed to champion the product through.

Product management is about people. Whether you’re building experiences for users, interacting with team members, or managing stakeholders, remember that we’re all human. We’re not robots. We feel emotions. So, recognize what you have the power to change, realize that you might not see the full story, and communicate your vision of the upside.

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Lauren Chan Lee

Lauren Chan Lee is a product leader who enjoys writing about the connections between product principles and everyday life. Learn more at: laurenchanlee.com