The Highly Sensitive Product Manager

I found out three years ago that I am part of the 20% of the population that is “highly sensitive.”

Let me unpack what that means and why I’m sharing this in contrast to my career as a product manager.

Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term “Highly Sensitive Person.” Her book, is the ur-text for all HSPs (our very own acronym!). The fundamental characteristics of an HSP are: highly empathetic, fiercely loyal due to that greater sense of empathy, intensely in-tune with his/her environment (including sensorial elements like noise, smell, etc. and emotions of other people), and easily overwhelmed.

Figuring out I’m a Highly Sensitive Person changed my perspective. Traits that I always perceived as negative began to seem more positive than before. Staying more positive about what I’m capable of as an HSP led me to my current career. I’m a Product Manager and many of the traits of this role may seem counter-intuitive to the above description but I want to use this post to explore how I’ve used those traits to my benefit as a Product Manager.

Product management is a widely defined discipline. The job description of Product Manager widely varies from company to company. But anyone who has worked as one or as met one has seen this infographic.

Product Manager Intersection

A Product Manager is a jack of all trades but a master of his/her product. He/she is the expert on his/her product, but has to have a smattering of knowledge in user experience / design, technology, and business. You don’t have to walk the walk in all these areas but you have to talk the talk. That means you don’t have to code, design mocks or close deals with clients but you need to contribute to your product in each of these areas with your expertise on the end user.

If I create the same Venn diagram using HSP traits, I can see how a variety of HSP qualities are favourable traits of a Product Manager.

HSP Intersection
  1. Put yourself into the shoes of the user (empathy mapping is a fun exercise)
  2. Observe what others miss (the Devs, your Bosses, the Project Managers, the Sales folks, the Marketing folks ,etc.)
  3. Product Managers are pulled thin — they need to be their for Sales, Engineering, Marketing, and, depending on the company, more stakeholder groups. Dedication is key.

And don’t get me wrong, there are other HSP traits that make my life harder as a Product Manager. For example, because HSPs are thoughtful we take a lot longer to make decisions. I’ve essentially had this mostly pulled out of my system — sometimes I feel like I make 50 decisions in a day. When I get home from work some days, so help me God if I have to decide what to make for dinner!

In today’s working world, being overwhelmed on a constant basis is the norm. As an HSP, I’ve struggled with this ever since I transitioned into the adult world of the daily grind. Even doing work I loved with enjoyable people wasn’t enough to stave off the feelings of being overwhelmed. And sometimes I’m still overwhelmed.

This is why…

To stave off feeling overwhelmed when I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off, I sit back and remember I’ve got the right foundation for this work. Everything going on around me can affect me more than others, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pursue what I love. I’d be more unhappy if I did just give up!

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Dr. Aron has a short checklist online to see if you’re an HSP. Check it out here. It helped turn my whole life around. Maybe it will help someone else too!