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Why Emotional Intelligence Makes Better People and Products

Soft people skills, like listening and empathy, are not prioritized nearly enough in the tech world. And that’s a shame. Because your best bet to create high-impact, high-quality digital products is with a motivated, collaborative, and effective product team. 

This makes a more emotionally intelligent approach to product development a safe wager, a prudent investment, and maybe even a pathway to a competitive advantage. 

How many times has post-mortem analysis of an unsuccessful product revealed one, simple reason as the cause of failure? The product failed because you didn’t listen. 

Maybe your team didn’t listen to customers when market research hinted at a shift in user trends. Maybe your team overruled your developers who cautioned against overloading a tech stack with a bloated feature list. Perhaps you ignored marketing advice that suggested pursuing a different distribution model.

As the product lead, your mission is to ensure the success of the product. And most product managers go about accomplishing this goal by leaning on a mix of technical expertise, project management know-how, and agile techniques to create an efficient working environment. 

A strong focus on the fundamentals is undoubtedly essential. But this strictly technical approach to product development fails to account for the single most important factor in the process: the human element. 

Let’s not forget, you’re building products for people. And you’re also doing it alongside other, equally gifted, and talented, humans. Adopting a more people-centered, emotionally intelligent approach to product development can actually help you avoid those seemingly simple problems that end up as big failures. 

But what exactly is emotional intelligence (EI)? And how does it apply to product development and make product developers better at their jobs?  

What Does Emotional Intelligence Have to Do with Making Products? 

Goal-setting at the start of any product development is critical. Get this wrong and the process undoubtedly suffers. 

Unfortunately, one of the biggest and most frequent mistakes product leaders make is focusing the goal-setting process only on the product. If a product development project fails, odds are good that it was destined to lose from the very start for this very reason.

We’ve said it before: Good product roadmaps help you build a product, great product roadmaps help you solve customer needs.

What’s the difference? A process focused on simply building a product doesn’t put that product in your customer’s hands. Only a process focused on people — on solving a real person’s problem — will. 

In other words, you can build all the products you want. But if you don’t plan for customer adoption and use, you’re planning for failure. 

Winning Customers through Emotional Intelligence

To win customers, first and foremost you need the ability to understand people, their problems, and their concerns. You then need to innovate to find the most effective ways to solve their problem (with your product).

Just keep in mind that understanding people goes beyond simply asking them what they want in a product. Because they likely won’t know how best to articulate it. 

To truly know people, you need to be able to form a more complete picture of who they are — what and how they think, what they feel, what motivates them, what makes their lives easier, etc.. That’s where EI comes into play. Emotional intelligence helps you to understand your customers at deep enough levels to draw insights for innovation. 

But your people-centered approach shouldn’t just stop there. It needs to extend to your product team and the entire process of developing your customer solutions. 

Creating an Emotionally Intelligent Product Team 

Have you ever been a part of a product development process that isn’t stressful? How many of your products have launched without a hitch? How often do you find yourself mediating conflicts around ego or territoriality? 

Having a team with above average EI doesn’t make deadlines disappear, guarantee a smooth product release, or eliminate friction and disagreements. But it does help you work through all those issues in more productive, more efficient, and less destructive ways. 

Therapist and EI expert Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. defines the concept as “the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.” 

The “empathize with others” part is key to building a product that your customers will actually want to use. But you need more than just empathy in order to build and maintain a harmonious and effective environment for your product team. 

According to Daniel Goleman — whose book, “Emotional Intelligence,” introduced the idea to public consciousness more than 25 years ago  — there are four critical domains of EI competency

  • Self-awareness — the ability to recognize your own emotions and identify how they impact your behavior and thinking. 
  • Self-management — the ability to control impulses, manage emotions in a healthy way, and adapt to changing circumstances. 
  • Social (team) awareness, or empathy — the ability to recognize and account for emotions and needs in others, identify group power dynamics, and generally put yourself in others’ shoes. 
  • Relationship management — the ability to communicate clearly, maintain relations with individuals and groups, and work effectively as part of a team. 

Having a product team staffed with people highly capable in all four of these areas would be a dream. But that’s not always the reality that product managers face. And unfortunately, the less of these attributes your product team possesses, the harder it is to make a good product that resonates with your customers. 

However, as the product leader, you get to set and shape the working environment for your team. So you can always help them adopt a more emotionally intelligent outlook and working style by modeling appropriate EI behaviors for them. 

Getting Better at EI 

So, what specific behaviors can help your team learn and practice emotional intelligence? You can start by showing how to be a better listener, a more self-aware co-worker, and a more empathetic colleague. 

Listening 

The process of listening sounds simple enough. But being good at it is far from a certainty. 

Many people only listen long enough in a conversation to come up with a reply of their own. Not surprisingly, this isn’t the most effective way of sharing ideas. Not giving your conversational partner at least the minimal amount of required attention can easily lead to misunderstandings. It can also lead to you missing out on critical information or valuable insights from your team members. 

Being a bad listener is an especially bad trait for a leader. Getting your co-workers to follow you is a much harder proposition if you have a habit of dismissing or alienating them. This can also stifle creativity and problem solving. Team members are less likely to speak up with solutions or innovative ideas if they don’t feel like their contributions are heard and valued. 

Being deliberate about practicing good listening habits is a staple of emotionally intelligent people. There is, however, more than one type of listening. 

Self-Awareness

Not only do you need to listen to the people around you, you need to be able to listen to yourself. You’d be amazed at how much identifying what you are feeling throughout the day can help in adding clarity to your behaviors and actions with others. 

For example, you might realize that you get more irritable the closer it gets to lunchtime — hanger (hunger + anger) is a real trap for many of us! As a result of that self-knowledge, you might avoid scheduling meetings that creep into the lunch hour (or make sure you have a snack in your pocket).

It might feel a little weird at first having these little check-ins with yourself. But establishing that routine can help you uncover all sorts of insights into your own behavior. It can also help clue you in to the response your behavior gets from others —  as in, “No wonder they were short with me. I was hungry and irritable, and acted like a jerk.” 

Which brings us to our third EI behavior. 

Putting Yourself in Other People’s Shoes 

This is good practice for your everyday life. And, as we mentioned, it’s crucial for understanding a customer problem well enough to be able to come up with a novel solution. But getting into this habit can also have a wonderful impact on team dynamics. 

Empathy helps to remove barriers between people and smoothes the communication process so a true exchange of ideas can take place. It also helps you and your colleagues keep an open mind — a valuable trait for constructive teamwork. 

For example, you may initially bristle at what you perceive or interpret as interference from another discipline in troubleshooting a product problem. A helping of empathy could push you to realize that a teammate’s offer of assistance isn’t an attempt to hog the spotlight or an encroachment onto your territory  —  they might just be eager to share a genuinely good, innovative idea. And a side order of self-awareness might tell you that you’re perhaps a little threatened by expertise or knowledge you yourself don’t possess.  

So, instead of closing yourself off, you might choose to open yourself up for creative problem-solving and move past the hang-up together. That collaboration may just produce the missing special element in your next best product. 

Build Better Products by Being A Better Team 

There are huge rewards to be reaped by adopting a more emotionally intelligent approach to product development. A more people-centric design and development process doesn’t just reveal more about your customers and help you make better products. It also helps you learn more about yourself as product lead and your team as a cohesive unit. 

It’s not every day you can improve yourself and help your customers at the same time. Or, is it?