As a researcher, building trust unlocks your ability to make an impact.
"Relationships are as critical as the quality of the work we deliver as researchers. They help to more clearly define our role in this team sport."
At People Who Do Research 2023, OpenPhone's Director of User Research Peter Roessler shared his perspective on interpersonal relationships, including past mistakes he’s made that taught him to lead each research engagement with listening, empathy, and vulnerability.
Watch the full session and read our recap below.
Roessler worked for a large enterprise software company early in his career. For one project, he recalls exploring customer needs for administering and customizing their product.
“The data told us that we had a matrix of profiles in the customer population that fell along two axes: from full focus on the core administration to full focus on customization, and from low to high coding experience.”
While there were interesting findings on the needs of administrators and developers, there was also a large gray area in between. The majority of customers actually had employees who were a mixture of these two roles.
When Roessler went looking for quantitative data to support his qualitative insights, he discovered this survey question being presented to customers when they sign up.
Armed with new insights and a problem to solve, he publicly brought this to the attention of the Developer Marketing, Product Management, UX, and leadership teams. It did not go well.
Roessler discovered a mistake with wide-reaching impact on the company’s decisions. Why weren’t people thrilled?
“People‘s egos, reputations, and self-worth are involved. Pushing hard on this broke down many of the channels of communication I had established.”
Roessler realized hadn’t given the Developer Marketing team a chance to share their perspectives, nor did he create space to understand the background of the situation that would allow him to see it from their point-of-view. He hadn’t taken the time to respectfully concerns without judgment. Instead of starting a dialog, he had cast blame.
Researchers are experts on a diverse set of data collection methods.
“We place such an emphasis on the mechanics of our work, the processes, the methods, the moving parts of getting the right data into the decision-making process that is critical to driving influence and impact on the products we are hired to help deliver.”
But impactful research is full of challenges, often grounded in an organization’s dynamics and ways of working.
“It seems like every single part of the product development process where we try to participate has issues that seem to work against our ability to do our jobs well.”
That's why Roessler proposes a reframe around the value of relationships and the impact of research contributions.
“Showing up in our relationships and building trust is the most effective way to maximize stakeholder engagement in research and the impact of hard-earned research insights.”
While methods, artifacts, and insights are important, they fall flat without the relationships that allow researchers to do their best work for an engaged audience. High performance and technical competence alone isn’t enough.
Roessler draws on powerful quotes from world-renowned figures like Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, and Tim Ferris to drive his point home.
In There’s NO Such Thing as “Soft Skills”, Sinek cites a study that found people vastly prefer to work with people they trust – even if they aren’t the highest performers on the job – over high-performing individuals they don’t trust.
So, what drives good communication and builds trusted relationships? Roessler says it’s a combination of listening, empathy, and vulnerability – and he has the definitions, scenarios, and lessons to illustrate why.
Leadership development expert Jack Zenger says skilled listeners “should be thought of as a trampoline who amplifies and supports a speaker’s thoughts by providing constructive feedback” – not sponges. They build upon what is said to demonstrate understanding, support, and cooperation. They take time to explore the perspectives of who they're working with and contribute to a constructive dialog.
Roessler returns to his story about the misleading survey question. The mistake he made was publicly addressing it without first:
“If I had taken the time to share my concerns respectfully, listened to what they had to say, and tried to understand things from their perspective, I could have had the opposite effect on my stakeholders, and delivered the impact and influence I was seeking.”
Instead, the focus was on his critique, which negatively impacted the attitudes of his peers and the impact of his work.
Research is a team sport, where everyone is working toward a common goal. When researchers find opportunities for improvement, don’t tell people what they did wrong. Teach them how to do it right, without introducing shame.
“It’s important to ask ourselves how we can add the most value in situations like these, intentionally setting the tone of our stakeholder relationships.”
Beyond core project work, lean into opportunities to frame research expertise, like a democratization program that empowers designers, or training on how to write surveys and analyze qualitative data.
“As researchers, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How much do our stakeholders understand about what we do, and how can we meet them where they’re at?’”
Brené Brown, American research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, defines empathy as feeling with people. To “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” you have to take their perspective without judgment, recognize their emotions, and communicate this recognition to them.
Roessler recalls an experience he had streamlining a company’s research intake process with a simple form to field a large volume of requests.
“It became clear there was misalignment between the actual needs of the product teams and the types of research they were requesting.”
Researchers became overwhelmed with the sheer volume of requests coming in – something Product Managers were oblivious to. And because they didn’t have the vulnerability to initiate conversations with product leadership around better ways to collaborate, their work suffered. And the process wasn’t empathetic toward the product managers either.
“All they knew was they had basic instructions to submit forms for their research needs. They were following the Research team’s guidance and thought they were doing the right thing.”
You can’t replace thoughtful communication with an Airtable form. While having individual conversations for every request wasn’t realistic, Roessler saw that strategic, face-to-face collaboration would be required for impactful research.
They focused on better aligning their research needs with the company’s goals and product strategy, and became more involved in agile planning sessions. This helped them prioritize the work that mattered most, instead of getting bogged down by less impactful requests.
“Part of the benefit of following an agile, scrum-based process is that it balanced everyone’s inputs and drove consensus. It’s essentially designed to encourage good communication.”
They also engaged more deeply with Product Management leadership.
“We directly addressed our bandwidth issue, got rid of the intake form, and continued partnering strategically to focus and prioritize our efforts.”
In Daring Greatly, Brown describes vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure; the willingness to step out of your comfort zone, let go of perfection, and share your honest ideas and perspectives.
“Demonstrating this strength and courage in your interactions – that you are stable in your sense of self and are willing to share – establishes deeper relationships with our colleagues.”
Roessler recalls a great relationship with a product manager that went south due to his “lack of understanding of all the moving parts and factors contributing to a product release.”
The product goal was to revamp an interface for one of their company’s products. While the research was insightful, the new UI was poorly designed. Administrators found it unusable.
Because of this, Roessler advised against releasing the new UI – and permanently damaged his relationship with the Product Manager.
Roessler failed to consider the business objectives and technical constraints Product Managers need to operate within to do their jobs.
“Sometimes, there are strong business reasons for getting functionality out the door, even if you know it will cause temporary pain for a certain user.”
Instead of sounding the alarm, Roessler could have first:
“Ultimately, our businesses are complex and we need to have empathy for all the contributions that go into product decision-making. Our jobs are to represent the needs of users, but also to acknowledge the balance of other inputs that determine the experiences our companies build.”
In Roessler’s experience, impactful research is a team sport that requires:
Together, these principles help build the foundation of trust and communication that team's need to work toward a common goal.
Jack is the Senior Content Lead at Great Question, the end-to-end research platform for customer-centric teams. Previously, he led content marketing and strategy as the first hire at two insurtech startups, Breeze and LeverageRx. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.