Ego is defined as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. We often have a very negative connotation of egos and see them as a toxic emotional state that gets in the way of progress. But egos can actually help drive progress, especially in product development, because they create a healthy tension that, if managed well, results in a great product.
As product managers, we encounter egos every day. We work with a client or stakeholder because they had an idea they felt was so important, it needed to become a reality. We work with developers and designers who are intensely connected to their work and take personal pride in it. We work with users who each need the product to match their idea of “perfect.” None of these are bad things! Each ego has value — but when one ego starts becoming more important than the other egos, development suffers and the balance must be restored.
The common egos on product teams
While it’s easy to dismiss egos as something unwanted and unnecessary, healthy egos can be helpful. Everyone in the room has a reason for reacting to aspects of a product, and a product needs that passion. Let’s look at common egos in the room:
- Engineers and designers: Engineers and designers are extremely connected to their work. They care deeply about the ultimate creation, and they don’t want to produce something they’re not proud of or that doesn’t reflect their skill.
- Outside experts: Many times, we bring experts in to use their experience to hone the product, but there is a fine line between implementing tried-and-true advice and using it to innovate. At times it can be difficult for experts to weigh in and not have their suggestions implemented. It’s important to keep them invested in the process and not let them become discouraged.
- The client: The client has a lot of knowledge and a lot of opinions, which is a double-edged sword. We want to leverage their knowledge to create the best product while remaining open enough to challenge their assumptions. This can be very hard for clients. Questioning is an important part of product development, but for people whose life and career are intertwined with the product, it’s only natural to hear that challenge and feel it personally.
Egocentrism does not serve the product
The goal of almost every product team is to create something that outlives the creators. Sure, the code will change, but the idea of the product lives on. When we encounter products down the line that make us ask, “Why was this built this way?” too often the answer is the name of a single person instead of a meaningful rationale. If someone new joins your project and asks that question, is the answer a person’s name, or is the answer backed by logic?
Don’t build “because Bob said so” products. Catering to egocentrism does not make a product that will live a long and wonderful life. If we can maintain a balance of egos, we set the product up for a future where any element can change and adapt, rather than stagnating because people are afraid of upsetting the original creators.
When an ego goes rogue
It’s going to happen! And balancing the egos in the product creation process is essential to making a great product and a successful and happy team. The challenge as a product manager is how to manage the process when one ego starts to steal the show. Try these tactics to restore the ego balance in the room:
Lean on data
Sometimes, we can’t get everyone on the same page. Egos flare, and every decision is a personal crusade. It’s important for PMs to identify and assess the risk to the product, as we would with any other setback. Lean more heavily on data in conversations to pull people away from their emotions, and try to gently re-ground them.
Write things down
Writing things down and making sure everyone has access to the notes can be a game changer as well. As egos flare and things get emotionally charged, it’s often hard to remember the actual discussion. Keeping things visible is a great step to getting back in alignment.
Spend time one-on-one
Although transparency is critical to the product’s success, sometimes 1:1 time is needed. If you notice one ego dominating, it might be worth taking some time with them. Sometimes this could stem from their fear that they won’t be able to convey the importance of what they’re saying and they need a safe space to feel heard. Walking through things with them 1:1 gives us the opportunity to show them we know and respect where they’re coming from.
PM self care
At the end of the day, know that, as a PM, you can only do so much. Good coping techniques are critical to our success. Allowing ourselves private time to meditate and reflect on our work-emotions is a great way to understand and acknowledge our own feelings, which helps us remain compassionate in our work.
Do as much as you can to feel like you did the best you could, but realize that while PMs can change products, we can’t change people. Reflect on what happened, learn from it, and keep moving forward.
Remember — ego is not all bad or all good
A healthy ego fills you with self-confidence and gives you the courage to be an active contributor and drive a product. But egos can become toxic when someone feels they are more important than others in the room. As PMs, we have the hard task of keeping our own egos in check, identifying when egos are surging, and helping restore the balance to ensure the product’s long-term success.