The Role Of Empathy In Product Management

How Do We Decide What Is “Good”?

The Golden Rule has featured in major philosophies and religions throughout history. For example:

  • “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Ancient Babylon)
  • “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Buddha)
  • “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing” (Classical Greek philosopher Thales)
  • “Do unto others what you would have them do to you” (Jesus Christ)
  • “The most righteous person is the one who consents for other people what he consents for himself, and who dislikes for them what he dislikes for himself” (Mohammed)

This all sounds good on the surface. Unfortunately, it is a bit simplistic.

The problem is that to live by the Golden Rule, we need only consider our own desires and then act towards others as we want them to act towards us. If I think pain is good, does that mean it is ethical for me to inflict pain on others? And if I do not consider the perspective of others, can I truly be said to be acting ethically?

Fortunately, ethical reasoning has progressed. A key to this progress is the concept of empathy.

The modern idea of empathy arguably has its roots in the ethical philosophy of Kant. Unlike the Golden Rule, Kant’s ethics challenge us to act as though what we do should become a universal law and simultaneously treat people as ends rather than means.

To live by Kant’s ethic is clearly a different proposition to the living by teachings of conventional religions and their various formulations of the Golden Rule. In Kant’s view, before taking action we must consider two things. Firstly, do our actions deserve to become laws, to guide all others universally in deciding on ethical actions? And secondly, do our actions treat people as equal in importance as ourselves, and not simply a way to achieve our objectives? If the answer is no to either question, then the proposed action is not ethical.

Once understood, this is a radically different view. It challenges us to consider other people in deciding what is ethical. To consider other people means seeing things from their perspective – “walking a mile in their shoes”. A plethora of literature is out there on empathy and the power of empathetic thinking to change the world for the better (and also the dangers of too much empathy!). Google it and see for yourself.


How Is This Relevant To Product Management?

Besides the minor detail of providing us a better way to think clearly about how to act ethically, there are at least 2 aspects of product management where empathy is important – getting the most from stakeholders and understanding customers.

Let’s consider some stakeholders. The Head of Marketing might give you a deadline for your product’s roadmap. Think about how you can use empathy to better understand what is motivating the request and that specific choice of deadline. A big new sale might depend on adding a major new feature within 3 months. Empathising with the sales team can help you understand what the true motivation is – perhaps it’s not that feature that is required, but merely a problem that can be solved in other ways.

Now let’s consider your customers. Do you really know what it is like to be your customer? Think about how you can walk some miles in their shoes, to truly see things from their perspective. Some techniques are observation, interviews, maintaining representative personas, shadowing customers as they go about their work and so on. We will dive into some of these techniques in later blogs.