Understanding Power Dynamics In Product Management (As a Product Manager)


As Product Managers will tell you, everyone has a view (and they are quick to share it). In day to day product management, this can be seen as both collaborative, and at times, rather testing to manage.
Power dynamics in product management

As Product Managers will tell you, everyone has a view (and they are quick to share it). In day to day product management, this can be seen as both collaborative, and at times, rather testing to manage.

Product managers are often informed of anecdotes, opinions and stakeholder desires that are intended to reiterate why directional change is suggested by others, or why their particular feature is more important than some other enhancement within the product roadmap.

Invariably, these stakeholders will try and exert their power and network to get their wants and needs met, in turn attempting to shortcut the process.

In this article we will explore the power dynamics in product management, and how to observe and deal with such moments.

Types of power that a product manager needs to understand

Social Psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven spoke about five types of power that apply in this context:

  1. Coercive power: This type of power comes from one’s ability to punish someone else for noncompliance, for example, through fear of losing their job or their annual bonus.
  2. Reward power: This type of power comes from one’s ability to issue rewards, for example, through a bonus or allowing time off in lieu.
  3. Legitimate power: This type of power comes from a person’s formal right to issue directives or commands because of their position in the organization, for example, the CEO has the right to dictate the strategy.
  4. Expert power: This type of power comes from one’s experience or knowledge, for example, a senior surgeon displays the expert knowledge for subordinates to trust them.
  5. Referent power: This type of power comes from being trusted or respected, for example, the boss who treats everyone fairly and with respect.

In addition to these five types of power, Raven later added a sixth type: Informational power. This type of power comes from controlling the information that others need in order to achieve something.

How does this impact a product manager?

You will likely experience power in the context of people pushing their agendas in the form of coercive, reward, or legitimate power.

Senior Managers will often have their pet ideas that they want to see come to life.

Sales teams will borrow the power of their client’s in the form of demands or complaints.

Cross functional team members can seek to borrow the power of regulatory bodies to drive their changes.

Everyone will do what they think is best to achieve the outcomes they believe are right for the business.

How do I drive the right outcomes for my product roadmap?

A good product manager seeks to embrace expert, and referent power. Using expert power as a weapon to pierce through counter arguments and referent power as a shield to defend against criticism.

These powers are built through hard work and experience.

Education and on the job learning can build up your expertise. The more often you are right, the better you build up your referent power.

Informational power can be utilised, though it can have a negative connotation and must be used with integrity to achieve meaningful, long-term success.

The best opinion a product manager can have is not theirs, it is the customer’s

Whilst there are no panaceas for a product manager to resolve every attempted disruption to their roadmap, the closest thing to it is to defend the position based on reality and have the data to back it up.

Whether it is digital analytics, focus group insights, representative surveys, direct customer feedback, complaints analysis, the list goes on…

When someone brings you their opinion and wants to argue against your opinion, it can really take the wind out of their sails by admitting that you don’t have a horse in the race. You simply are representing the customer’s voice and have multiple points of data to back it up.

Ultimately, your role as a product manager, at least within a large / corporate organisation, is to facilitate the outcomes that are best for the business.

This may sometimes mean yielding to the needs of others that may not seem optimal for you and your product.

But with a good understanding of power dynamics, positive, clear, and productive communication, and an opinion that is backed up by data and steeped in reality - you will have the best chance to get things done on time, and on budget.

If you need help laying out your roadmap, providing clarity to your stakeholders, or analysing the data - reach out to us and we can help.

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