The first time I led a product team by myself was a nightmare. I joined the team as their first product manager to bring the product out of the MVP stage and manage its growth. This should have been an incredible challenge to sink my teeth into and grow; instead, I struggled. Stakeholders and leaders disagreed on which success metric to prioritize. Each stakeholder had their own roadmap with different KPI goals that they needed my team’s engineering time to support.
In one case, two stakeholder teams had requests that would pull the product in opposite directions. I tried to focus on the customer problems at hand, but I was distracted by competing requests. During these months, I worked long nights and weekends. My sleep suffered due to stress. I survived on espressos and vending machine snacks. Eventually, I accepted an opportunity to transfer to a different team because I felt out of control.
In other words, I burned out.
The Science Behind Burnout
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common causes of burnout are an inability to influence decisions that affect your job, unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics, lack of social support and work-life imbalance.
The rapid shift to working remotely during the pandemic led many to work longer hours and go beyond their job descriptions to ensure work gets done. An Indeed survey of 1,500 U.S. workers in March 2021 reports that 52 percent of respondents felt burned out, and 67 percent felt it had gotten worse during the pandemic. As a product manager, this sounds like a problem we need to solve.
In conversations with my colleagues at different companies, it’s clear that organizations are combating burnout in a variety of well-intended but, in my opinion, ineffective ways. Some workplaces are offering more PTO, some are offering wellbeing webinars on managing stress, and others are encouraging midday breaks while working remotely. There’s nothing wrong with these offerings — and they may even help a little! — but they don’t address the fundamental causes of burnout listed above.
How to Prevent Burnout on Your Product Team
- Choose your organization’s North Star metric.
- Align your product teams around it.
- Give your PMs the authority to say no to anything that distracts from that goal.
If you’re confused, I understand. When we think of wellbeing in the workplace, what comes to mind is usually flexible hours and free snacks — not a prioritization framework. Here are three ways my solution address the major causes of burnout.
1. Unclear Job Expectations and an Inability to Influence Decisions
When you establish an official North Star metric, you give your product managers the authority to prioritize work according to a clear definition of success. They have the agency to say yes to opportunities that bring their team closer to their goals. Conversely, they are allowed to say no to meetings and projects without a purpose that drain their energy.
2. Dysfunctional Workplace Dynamics and a Lack of Social Support
Once, I told a stakeholder team that we couldn’t commit to their requests for that quarter. The next day, they presented those same ideas to leadership and told them I had already committed! It’s hard for me to blame the team, though; their definition of success was different from mine. They did what they felt they needed to do to keep their jobs.
The only times I’ve experienced extreme dysfunction in my workplace is when teams were not aligned under the same definition of success. Rallying around the North Star metric solves this.
3. Work-Life Imbalance
Work-life imbalance is the most significant contributor to burnout. When we feel out of control in our jobs and unsupported by the broader organization, we’re more likely to work more hours to try to cover everything. When I worked long nights and weekends, I wasn’t being more productive with all my extra hours than the other PMs.
On the contrary, I was more behind than ever because my attention was being pulled in multiple directions. When I did get to go home, I wasn’t able to relax and sleep because I was so worried about work. Had my organization implemented a North Star metric and allowed me to say no to ideas that distracted from that metric, I know I wouldn’t have burned out.
In most cases, burnout isn’t your fault. It's a result of failures caused by the organization as a whole to adequately define success metrics and prioritize work around them. Rather than expecting our colleagues to be superhuman and take on all tasks thrown at them, we should respect their time and skills by empowering them to only work on the most high-impact work.
And that depends on clearly defining what success looks like, aligning your efforts accordingly and offering each other the freedom to say no to things that don’t serve the goal.