Batman: Noel and the Danger of Unchecked Product Management Empathy
Batman: Noel is a graphic novel written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, featuring a Batman twist on a Charles Dickens classic.
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We’re going to reveal key plot points of Batman: Noel as we explore the danger of unchecked empathy for product managers. And we’ll do it all in 12 panels or less. You have been warned!
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Poor Bob is a single father trying to support his son. Unfortunately, he chooses to make ends meet by serving as a bagman for the Joker, which puts him square in Batman’s crosshairs.
Batman secretly plants a tracker on Bob, then allows him to escape. This is part of his plan to use Bob as bait to reel in Joker.
Alfred points out that similar plans have had disastrous unintended consequences — including the death of Batman’s former partner and adopted son, who visits Bruce in a flu-induced vision later that night.
Shaking off the apparition, Batman responds to a call from Commissioner Gordon, who tells Batman that Catwoman claims to have information about the Joker’s whereabouts. But she’ll only share the details with Batman.
Catwoman’s fibbing, trying to get Batman to chase her across the rooftops like the good old days. Batman doesn’t care for the trip down memory lane.
Superman visits and takes Batman around Gotham to remind him that life isn’t just about justice and vengeance; it’s about the people of Gotham City who Batman is sworn to protect. Batman dismisses the whole experience as maudlin nonsense.
After advising Batman to go home and heal up, Superman drops Batman off at the Batmobile and flies away. When Batman attempts to get into his vehicle, he triggers an explosion which knocks him unconscious. Joker emerges from the shadows and drags Batman to a cemetery…
And buries him alive. As he suffocates, Batman experiences a vision of chaos destroying Gotham City — with citizens, inspired by their memories of a merciless Batman, killing criminals in cold blood.
This nightmare jolts Batman awake, and he digs himself out of the grave.
Meanwhile, Joker breaks into Bob’s apartment to retrieve his missing money and kill Bob and his son.
Batman arrives in time to stop Joker from gunning the family down. In the fighting, Joker loses control of his weapon. Bob manages to grab the gun, intent on killing Joker, who dares him to pull the trigger. Batman convinces Bob to be the dad his son needs him to be — someone who protects, but would never kill an unarmed man. Bob lowers the gun. The police arrive and take Joker away.
At peace, Batman returns to the Batcave to finally rest and recover.
The next morning, Bruce Wayne gifts Bob with a meaningful job and an actual Christmas tree.
The Moral Of The Story
In A Christmas Carol, greed and redemption are driving themes. Scrooge’s greater love for money than people hurts others and himself. The visits of ghosts from his past, present, and future drive him toward a change of heart.
In Batman: Noel, Batman is not motivated by greed: His desire is to save people from the Joker and get the Joker back behind bars.
However, his intense drive toward justice blinds him to the reality of the people he’s trying to save, turning them into obstacles to overcome and pawns for his plans.
Empathy: The Blessing & The Curse
For many product managers, the drive to create something of value is a key motivating factor.
Years of design-oriented thinking and emotional intelligence has driven home the criticality of empathy as a business skill — empathy toward our external buyers and users, and empathy toward our internal stakeholders.
Understanding why someone would buy our product over another… why someone would use our product in a certain way… why internal teams are encountering difficulties meeting certain agreed-upon objectives…
Rather than seeing people as pawns in our schemes, we seek to better understand them.
Being able to understand and articulate perspectives that are different from our own — different because they’re based on life experience we’ve not had and rooted in personalities and skillsets that are not like our own — is invaluable.
However, we need limits if we’re going to survive and thrive.
If you’re not getting to the why of the situation and working with the business to resolve it, then ultimately you’re not really helping anyone.
For example, if engineering is routinely failing to deliver and you just shrug it off because “that’s how it is”… that might be nice of you, because you’re not loading more weight on their collective backs, but if you’re not getting to the why of the situation and working with the business to resolve it, then ultimately you’re not really helping anyone.
That kind of empathy is actually a more pleasant form of apathy.
Follow The Bat Signal
Look at the finale of Batman: Noel. Batman clearly has a change of heart: He does not sacrifice Bob to capture the Joker, and he even provides a helping hand to Bob moving forward. But does he stop being Batman? No.
The lesson here for product managers is we need to have the ability to understand where people are coming from and why. But we also need the ability to strategically dial down the empathy so we can focus on what we’re thinking, and why, and communicate to our stakeholders what needs to be done to drive the business forward.
Psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon recommends the following if you have trouble adjusting your empathic sensitivity:
- When you face a decision that is contentious, schedule a time and day to make a final decision, and then make it.
- Set aside time to think without any input from others when you can consider the information you’ve gathered and see how it affects your own perspective.
- Always keep meetings to a strict agenda, set by you.
- Watch out for perpetually anxious and negative voices and cut them off.
- Get comfortable with having the power to make decisions.
- Don’t over-compensate and get too rigid and authoritarian.
For more of Lee Bermejo’s art, you can follow him on Instagram @leebermejoart