Five Mistakes Product Teams Make When Collaborating

And how brain science can help get them on track

Some of the most intense emotional responses in product management occur when five key areas of social experience collide. Intentionally or unintentionally — we’ve all been guilty of triggering them in team members. Perhaps you’ve had an experience similar to mine?

Here’s what happened when I wasn’t aware of a few simple brain-based techniques for avoiding mistakes that cripple collaboration…

As a software executive, I once oversaw a team working to bring a new solution to market. Within this group were two individuals who did not work well together. In fact, the person tasked with leading the effort didn’t value the education, experience, or background of the other.

This individual continually pointed out their colleague’s professional weaknesses. They set unclear expectations around work assignments and didn’t trust their teammate to make decisions. Not once did they show any interest in them as a person. And they blamed their coworker when the product launch was less than successful.

Now these situations happen all the time within teams. Most of us just chalk them up to coworkers not getting along. However, I was determined to discover a way to help my entire team avoid this in the future.

This is your brain at work

Published in 2008 by the NeuroLeadership Institute, NeuroLeadership Journal: Volume One outlined a framework illuminating how to improve the way we work with others called the SCARF model. Developed by Dr. David Rock, it defines five key areas of social experience the human brain monitors at a subconscious level — Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.

The journal also explained that minimizing threats and maximizing rewards is how the brain organizes incoming information. On auto-pilot at any given moment, our brain can be in either of these two states — ‘Minimize Threats’ or ‘Maximize Rewards’. And which state we’re in will impact our ability to work with others.

via ChangeQuest

For example, a perceived threat to our status activates the brain in the same manner as an actual life-threatening situation. Many everyday conversations mirror this example. When feeling threatened, we often defend weak arguments because our brain subconsciously believes our life is at risk.

Got all that? This context is important for what comes next.

The five mistakes and how to avoid them:

1. We attack status. It’s incredibly easy to threaten someone’s status by offering advice, feedback, or instruction. All activities essential to product management. But nothing puts a person on the defensive faster — shutting down collaboration and communication. So how do we sidestep this minefield? Dale Carnegie once said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated. Become genuinely and actively interested in other people and show it.” Cross-functional team members will be much more open to candid advice when you’ve shown appreciation for what they contribute.

2. We mess with certainty. Changing product requirements, direction, or strategy on the fly flushes certainty right out of the brain. This causes stress because the brain must use more resources to process unfamiliar information. Yet, there’s a simple way to reduce that feeling of uncertainty. Proactively involve necessary stakeholders from engineering, design, marketing, sales, etc. in revamping those plans. It’ll give them a sense of clarity and alignment, which increases certainty because you brought them into the process. And even though things might not happen as planned, the act of setting clear expectations together can instill confidence in the face of change.

3. We don’t build and nurture trust. For eons, tribes have ensured human survival. We naturally trust those inside the tribe and distrust those who are out. It’s called relatedness. When we trust each other because of our relation — information flows and collaboration increases. Yet we often forget that taking time to share personal stories helps bond relationships. It’s easy with coworkers who like the same indie band or that corner Thai restaurant. But how about the person from a different culture or subculture who seemingly has nothing in common? Someone with potentially opposing views or beliefs? Start intentionally building and nurturing trust by learning their story.

4. We jeopardize autonomy. Working on a product team naturally reduces a sense of independence. So what can we do when managing multiple personalities and processes in our role? Possible threats to autonomy will be offset when status, certainty, and relatedness have been increased. Make investments in those areas. Feeling appreciated, involved, and part of the team fosters an environment where people know their voice is heard.

5. We’re not fair. Nothing is more unfair than a double standard because actions really do speak louder than words. There’s a distinct difference between saying one thing and doing another. However, consistent and transparent communication that matches our actions will safeguard a fair product team atmosphere. This requires a level of self-awareness that doesn’t come easy. It also demands humility. Admitting when we’re wrong, made an error, or even miscommunicated something is much more difficult than shifting blame onto others. But in doing so, we’ll positively trigger a sense of fairness among colleagues.

I know I’ve certainly made these mistakes in the past and maybe you have too. Sometimes just one of them. Other times, several all at once. Thanks to these brain-based insights, knowing what they are is super helpful. However, understanding how to circumvent them in the future is empowering.

Start practicing better collaboration

Which of these five mistakes seems most familiar? As the perpetrator, victim or both? Knowing this information now — how might you respond or act differently in future situations with coworkers using these “soft skills”?

After pondering this, write down one way you can begin practicing what you’ve both learned and identified. Now go implement that today. As a product professional working to avoid past mistakes — I wish you the best!

Want to put an end to poor collaboration? Please share this article with your coworkers. Then spark a candid dialogue with them by describing what you’ve specifically committed to changing. They’ll truly appreciate this conversation.

Get help with your practice

I’ll soon release a free toolkit titled Soft Works: Practicing the Human Side of Product Management. This kit includes a premium podcast series and companion workbook that’ll help jumpstart your soft skills practice today.
The knowledge you’ve just acquired is about understanding how to foster better communication and collaboration. That also happens to be the purpose of this powerful toolkit. Request your free copy right here.

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Bryan Kelly helps product professionals build a practice around soft skills. Visit for simple tools blending neuroscience, psychology, and practical know-how.

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