The Danger of Emotional Product Owners

Posted By - Geoff Watts


Do you ever find yourself thinking “Why on Earth did they do THAT?!”…Maybe “I shouldn’t have done that”?…How about “that went terribly”?… It’s perfectly normal for Product Owners to be emotional and judge situations, outcomes or events. We often do it without noticing. We simply evaluate outcomes, actions, even the weather as either good or bad.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” – Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

One of my favourite mantras is “It’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just interesting.” I try and encourage all types of leaders including Scrum Masters and Product Owners to be less emotional and to experiment with this line of thinking at work now and again.

I didn’t realise this was something that movie star Bruce Lee said until recently but I’m happy to give credit where it’s due.

Judgement is the mind saying ”this was good” or ”this was bad.” While it can be useful to analyse situations for improvement, generally judging things adds unnecessary baggage to the process when compared to objective analysis.

When we judge, we add emotions like guilt, embarrassment, frustration, anger and many others whereas changing the analysis to judgement-free allows for calm curiosity and creativity.

It’s not always easy to take a step back and look at a situation objectively. It’s often easier to get caught up in the emotion of the moment and make snap judgments. However instead of making quick judgments, you could ask yourself:

“What don’t I currently know that might shine a different perspective on what I’ve just observed?”


“Who might have a perfectly reasonable alternative interpretation of that?”

This could help you gain valuable insight into a situation, as well as help you think more critically about the world around you. By taking the time to ask yourself this question, you may be able to gain new perspectives and come up with creative solutions that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Product Management can be emotional

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Product Managers will be faced with plenty of situations where it will be difficult to not judge. Perhaps the team don’t deliver the Sprint Goal. Perhaps a stakeholder goes over your head to someone more senior in order to prioritise a feature. Perhaps the regulator brings in a new compliance mandate which completely disrupts your roadmap. Perhaps the Product Backlog is growing out of control.

While it can be a good idea to know when to quit, quitting because of an emotional response to an “interesting” event probably isn’t going to get you far.

As well as the cognitive biases that Product Managers suffer from, emotional blindness can be a real thing. We tend to see things we want to see, we look for interpretations that are more comfortable and favourable for us and we can see bumps in the road as personal quirks of fate. None of those responses help us build great products or great relationships so if you’re a Product Owner how can you be less emotional?

How can Product Owners be less emotional?


First of all buy yourself some time. You’ve almost certainly got a story to tell where you reacted emotionally and regretted it. You’ve also likely got a story where you took some time, thought things through and worked out a healthier response.

If we think of things as good or bad, not only are we dropping into dichotomous thinking – more on that in this blog post – but we are likely going to regret our response.

Some prompts that can help take a more level-headed, objective view of things and, as a Product Owner, be less emotional include:

  • What can I learn from this?
  • If I were to assume there is a positive angle here, what would that be?
  • Who could give me an interesting insight into this?
  • How would [someone you respect] respond to this?
  • If I were to wait until [later on/tomorrow/next week] before responding, how might it be different?
  • What is my gut telling me and what is my head telling me? Which of them is getting less air-time?

Accept Things For What They Are

It’s often difficult to judge situations based on the facts, and that’s a problem in itself. Sometimes it is better to let go of what you know, especially when that knowledge has been acquired through negative experiences. That doesn’t mean you should accept things as they are; rather, it means you should accept them for what they are. Acknowledging the situation for what it is might lead to better solutions because you will be less likely to continue fixating on it.

If you are having a problem with judgment and your behaviour is causing problems for yourself or others, then acknowledge that situation for what it is, and then begin to change your behaviour.

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