The Reality of Moral Injury in Product Management
On January 28th 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all crew members. What a lot of people may not know is that in the lead-up to the launch, NASA engineers, including primary engineer Roger Boisjoly, warned NASA officials of how the cold weather that day could cause significant issues with the launch. The rubber O-rings on the rocket could become brittle in cold weather, potentially causing hot fuel gasses to leak and set off an explosion. Unfortunately, the engineers were right.
Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay noted that "moral injury occurs when a person in authority disregards a subordinate’s judgment on the morally correct course of action, thereby violating the subordinate’s trust and self-esteem." Boisjoly and the other engineers challenged their leaders and executives with the morally correct course of action of stopping the launch. But ultimately they were shut down and paid a high psychological price. Boisjoly never worked as an engineer again after the tragic incident.
The reality is that moral injury can be applied to many professions and industries, especially in product management. In a conversation with Bain Public’s Moshe Mikanovsky, Director of Product Management, and Paul Ortchanian, CEO & Founder, we looked at how product managers have to deal with moral injury when speaking up to leaders and the C-Suite.
Dealing with the Hurdles as a Product Manager
Product managers know the ins and outs of product, including the users, the problems, and what needs to be done to fix pain points. But it’s the leaders, the people of authority, who often disregard a product manager’s judgment, violating their trust and self-esteem in the process. Product managers are often the main communicators among these stakeholders who may each have their own motivations. They have to network, engage in team building, and build rapport to keep everyone in the organization on the same page and working towards the same goal. Often what happens is that the product manager is unable to clear the dysfunction in a team, which eventually build-ups moral injuries. In due course, they jump from job to job, or simply leave the profession altogether. It doesn’t exactly sound ideal, but unfortunately, this is the norm in today’s world of product management.
Moshe connected moral injury to bullying in the workplace, "Bullying is one of the things you don’t expect to happen in a professional environment. I’ve been bullied by a CEO, for example, and I didn’t have a voice because of this. I wasn’t able to speak my mind without the CEO saying I didn’t know what I was talking about."
Paul then jumped in with his own similar experience with a CTO where he was disregarded and sent down rabbit holes chasing more data and more interviews with customers, when all the CTO was really doing was trying to buy time, which burned the bridge of trust.
Paul adds, "You expect people in the C-Suite to at least trust you are trying to help the product, and that they’ll work with you rather than against you. When leadership works against you, it impacts your self-esteem as a product manager. You end up second guessing whether you know the roles and responsibilities."
Paying the Psychological Price
When you’re hired as a product manager, in theory, you are supposed to work to create a collaborative atmosphere by encouraging new ideas, building team relationships, and constantly highlighting the product mission, strategies and tactics. But there’s a price you pay for not succeeding in influencing everyone in the C-Suite.
Executives usually judge product managers for their ability to communicate, write, listen and provide data on the product. Paul says it’s easy to find reasons for contradicting the product manager, "No one criticizes a salesperson for selling. But you could be a quirky product manager and constantly get pushed over."
As a product manager, you need to know about revenue, churn and other business measurements, and how these affect the product, and in turn, how the product affects the organization, including sales, marketing and customer support metrics. But leaders don’t understand why product managers need to know this information, and so when there are closed doors or offsite meetings about the product without the product manager included, it causes significant moral injury to the product manager, who pays the psychological price of not being trusted with critical product discussions.
Product managers need to have a basic understanding of how influence works in order to achieve their desired results and get stakeholder buy-in, or else they will carry their moral injuries from one company to another and it all keeps piling up. Courage can be gained over time through experience, and by building your self-esteem in your abilities to get stakeholders to trust you. But unfortunately, no matter the company, there’s hardly ever this happy paradise where a product manager is well respected, empowered, trusted and listened to. The grass isn’t always greener.
After Moral Injury - What Comes Next
So what happens after being morally injured? Where do you go from here? Jumping from job to job and reaching the critical point of burnout isn’t exactly ideal. A longer-term option in this line of work is climbing the ladder and becoming a product leader to be on the same level as C-Suite. Once here, one can have table stakes in the executive room to influence all stakeholders and the organization’s product culture, and create a healthy environment for the product managers, protecting them from negative influences and moral injuries.
While product managers working their way up to the same level as C-Suite can certainly help the product culture, Moshe offered up a shorter-term solution, saying that product managers need to create personal relationships with key stakeholders and leaders to avoid a toxic environment, "Once you have those relationships, while it doesn’t necessarily remove the risk of moral injury, it significantly reduces it — having that real understanding of their perspectives, empathy to their needs, and how they work. If you know them, you’re more equipped to handle certain situations better."
Changing the Product Culture with SOAP™
Hiring third parties such as Bain Public can also be a real turning point when it comes to improving product culture in an organization.
Success per se is not a sign of high-performing product teams. High-performing product teams need to have both processes and predictability in place so they can succeed, not by chance, but through replicable and measurable processes that reliably lead to market momentum.
If you’re looking to stop moral injury in its tracks, SOAP™ is a Bain Public product-driven framework that helps first-time founders and product managers to work together and put in place product-led processes.
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