affective empathy

Empathy vs. Sympathy

empathy vs sympathyI often wonder how certain things will turn out if our leaders know how to empathize, and not simply sympathize with their people.

See, oftentimes they are interchangeable. But there’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy, and we must learn how these two can greatly affect our relationships with people both at work and in life.

Empathy is to feel and connect with people, while sympathy drives disconnection. Empathizing is being together with the person in the dark so they are not alone while sympathizing is saying “Too bad!” from afar.

According to research, HR managers believe that having emotional intelligence is the key to a happy and productive workplace. However, having the right emotions also plays an integral part. Should we be empathetic towards people at work, or sympathetic? Keep reading this post for my in-depth look at the differences between empathy and sympathy.


To put it simply, empathy is a choice to connect with someone and take their perspective as my own. It is the ability to share my feelings with other people and understand what they’re going through — because I may have also been in that position before.

Empathizing is also about listening without interruptions. It is accepting that the person is facing challenges. I do not have to respond to what they are telling me, I just need to be with them at that moment. I can do nothing, and that’s more than enough.

According to the Secure Methodology from the book The Smartest Person in the Room, a culture without empathy will not succeed. Humans are simply not born with empathy. It is something that we need to develop and learn over time. Empathy also plays a great role when it comes to technical leadership. If it is non-existent, technical people will not care about their customers and data, nor will they have any concern for their colleagues.

Even leaders attend seminars to learn and to know its value. So what makes empathy important when it comes to leadership? Is it simply being aware of other people’s emotions and understanding how they feel? How can we act and base our decisions on it?

But before I get into this further, let me explain the two kinds of empathy: cognitive and affective.


Cognitive empathy — or logical empathy — is the ability to understand the mental state of a person. It is not a feeling, rather it is a skill. It is putting myself into someone’s place and seeing things based on their perspective. It’s imagining myself in their position, without needing to make judgments, and recognizing their emotions. It is simply understanding what they are going through, without having to feel sorry for them.

When choosing what’s best for everyone, I know I can make the right decisions because I am not influenced or clouded by other people’s emotions.


Unlike cognitive, affective empathy is the ability to share and literally feel the emotions of the other person. If a coworker comes up to me and tells me that she is going through a rough divorce, I would feel sad and anxious with her. This type of empathy, however important, is unproductive and unnecessary when it comes to a work environment.

It’s ineffective for leaders to make decisions when they have absorbed everyone’s emotions, especially the negative ones. Therefore, a great leader who is an asset to a business has high cognitive and low affective empathy.

Read this post to know more about how empathy affects leadership!

Empathy in Leadership

Sometimes at work, leaders are so concerned about their positions that they forget to take care of the people they are in charge of. They fail to recognize them as human beings, and instead, they just focus on outputs and results. This ends with employees just merely trying to do their work and get through the day with their heads down, scared of the managers that will pick on their tiniest mistakes.

No one wants to work like that. So what does it take to create a happy and healthy working environment?

Here’s a scenario. An exemplary employee who was never late, and never missed out on work — not even once — suddenly comes to work late every day and is always behind his deadlines. Instead of telling him that he needs to get himself together or he’ll be fired, the manager asked him what’s wrong and if he’s okay. He asked if there’s anything bothering him and if he needs help. The employee said that his mother is sick and he’s the one taking care of her.

So the manager told the employee to take a one-week leave and changed the schedule so that he will be able to have time to take care of his sick mother before coming to work.

That is an example of a leader showing empathy to the people he is charged with.

Leaders must show the employees that they understand and value them. The employees need to know that if they make a mistake, they wouldn’t be fired the next day. They have to know that if the numbers are down in the business, they wouldn’t be laid off so easily. The employees have to feel that the person leading them empathizes with them as a person and would consider them when they are making decisions. That’s why showing empathy in the workplace is very important.


Having sympathy for a person is evaluating and assuming what that person feels, then extending the emotions of sorrow and pity. It does not require feeling what the other person is exactly feeling at that moment, and it does not involve a shared perspective. Therefore, sympathy automatically drives detachment from the person.

Sympathy is expressed, while empathy is shared. Though empathy is a deeper feeling, sympathy is as heartfelt and honest.

A person may be able to feel sympathy, but not empathy. For example, there’s a businessman who filed for bankruptcy — others may sympathize with him and feel sorry, but not all can empathize because not everyone has experienced bankruptcy.

Although having sympathy does not lead to taking action, it is still an integral value that we all need to have.

Sympathy in Leadership

With that in mind, how does sympathy affect leadership? Think back to the previous scenario about the stellar employee who suddenly started coming into work late and missing deadlines. If the manager sympathized with the employee’s troubles, they would have simply expressed their sorrow for the other person instead of making accommodations to make things easier for the employee.

This sympathy may be nice, but it could leave the employee feeling quite a bit uncared for by their managers since no actions were taken to meet their needs.

Empathy or Sympathy?

Now that I have discussed the differences between empathy and sympathy, let me ask again, which is more important?

The answer is empathy — straight and simple.

When we have empathy, we HELP people be their best, instead of getting the best OUT of them. Colleagues support each other to let them perform well and grow. We make decisions that are best for everyone. We avoid quick judgments, and instead, we listen more.

For leaders wanting to know more about empathy, leadership, and the Secure Methodology, check out my book The Smartest Person in the Room. It discusses further how leaders can be more effective in technical leadership through empathy.

This short video by Brene Brown is great at explaining empathy vs sympathy as well:

Cognitive vs Affective Empathy Leadership

Cognitive vs Affective EmpathyEmpathy is a skill that everyone will need over the course of their lives in many different settings. From the personal to the professional, how we relate to and understand one another is important to our success as social beings and people within a social hierarchy.

While empathy is a broad term meant to define the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, there are categories of empathy that are necessary to our understanding of the concept in a leadership context.

Cognitive and Affective empathy are two of the biggest categories that have effects on our lives and the people we interact with daily. Particularly in a company, empathy is a necessary tool for empathetic leaders to direct and work with their team members and employees. In any technical role, a technical leader must be able to harness empathy and emotional intelligence to take the perspective and understand the feelings of their team to better manage them.

The Two Sides

Cognitive and affective empathy both require understanding the feelings of another person, but while cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another’s mental state, affective empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others without any direct emotional stimulation to oneself.

We might think of cognitive empathy as the necessary first step to being able to feel what others are feeling while using affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is necessary for improving technical leadership.

Cognitive Empathy

Also known as ‘perspective taking’, cognitive empathy requires putting yourself into someone else’s place to see their perspective. Cognitive empathy is the logical empathy of understanding someone else’s feelings or positions.

It is a skill but not a feeling. One could have strong cognitive empathetic skills without actually feeling the emotions of the other person. Cognitive empathy only requires an understanding, not a reciprocation or sympathy.

Affective Empathy

Affective empathy is a great step in the empathetic process but can be ineffectual for leaders in a workplace. Someone who understands the feelings of others can then go on to literally feel the other person’s emotions. Affective empathy requires being affected by the other person’s emotions, just like you had ‘caught’ them. Catching unproductive emotions could be detrimental to your work and team.

This type of empathy is also important but less so for technical leaders and others in the workplace because it can often hinder your work or productivity. Someone leading a team must understand the team and how they are feeling and make deductions about what they are thinking or how they work, without letting those feelings interfere with their mission.

Affective empathy is not always necessary for a technical leader looking to understand their team because understanding their emotions is what will help them put themselves in their shoes and learn to manage them better.


The traits of cognitively empathetic people and affectively empathetic people are very different and often highlight the differences in thinking and application of empathy. Cognitively empathetic people can often use empathy as a tool to their advantage by using their knowledge and understanding of another person’s emotions to their and the team’s advantage. This is particularly useful for technical leaders hoping to get in the minds of their team members and learn how to maximize their work.

An affectively empathetic person will also feel the emotions of the other person, which can often be unproductive. Someone who is affectively empathetic may be experiencing the negative emotions of the other person, creating problems for themselves.

Cognitive empathy allows a leader to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and work to help the other person. The analytical nature of cognitive empathy is useful for leaders of all types because they are able to aid the work of their team members without being particularly affected by the emotions of others.

The Business Case

Empathy is an effective tool in business because understanding the needs and feelings of stakeholders is a valuable asset in any project or negotiation.

There is a strong business case for empathy in general because empathetic leaders are often more effective and command more respect from their teams.

The distinction between cognitive and affective empathy makes it clear that every type of leader can benefit from strong empathetic skills, but cognitive empathy is the essential ingredient for a strong technical leader in the workplace.

The most effective leader has high cognitive empathy, but low affective empathy. It’s great to understand and have the capacity for affective empathy, but it is important that leaders avoid diving into their affective empathy.

Democratic Leaders

Leaders who include their team members in their decision-making process can use cognitive empathy to understand their opinions and ideas better. Interpreting the votes and ideas of others through their perspectives gives a leader a deeper understanding of where they are coming from and how to better define their positions.

Autocratic Leaders

Even leaders who make all the decisions on their own without consulting team members can harness cognitive empathy to take into consideration their team members’ opinions without asking for them. Autocratic leaders often prefer to make decisions on their own terms, and by combining this style with the ability to understand their team members, their decisions can become more effective.

Servant Leaders

A similar style to military leadership where leaders serve the interests of the people they lead, a servant leader works hard to meet the needs of their team. This particular style of leadership incorporates many of the traits of empathetic leaders but can sometimes consider others’ opinions too much. Strong cognitive empathy can help to balance the idea that everyone on the team is equal with a leader who needs to have the strength to make the final decision, especially when it is a tough call.

Empathy and the Secure Methodology

The sixth step of the Secure Methodology is empathy. By taking into final consideration the positions of others, leaders can improve their leadership style and effectiveness. Empathy is a critical part of the Secure Methodology because it is part of the cement in the final steps of the methodology. Without it, the rest is less stable.

Technical Leaders and Their Empathetic Skills

Technical people often struggle with people skills for a variety of reasons. Particularly in cybersecurity, the technical perspective one must take is quite binary. This, unfortunately, doesn’t fully click when working with people, because people are far from binary. Never wanting to be wrong and poor communication are often barriers to people skills that are essential to leading a team. Technical leaders could often benefit from improving all of them.

Binary Thinking

People are not binary and think in an array of ways. The logical thinking that works so well for solving cybersecurity issues does not work with people, and a different tool is necessary to crack that code: empathy.

Cognitive empathy for technical leaders is so powerful that it could mean the difference between success and failure on a project. Failing to see the perspective of a team member could spell disaster for the project. Improving cognitive empathy is the way to improvement for every leader.

A Need for Certainty

Cybersecurity professionals like to be right, and they love to be absolutely right. Insecurity is a common source of this feeling. It can lead to one-way thinking and posturing, which doesn’t take into account what other team members are thinking or saying.

Cognitive empathy helps with this issue by opening up an understanding of what other people are saying. A technical leader can then realize that what someone else is saying is the right way, no matter how painful it might be to admit they are wrong and vice versa.


Technical jobs, like all jobs, require communication. Conversing healthily and productively is essential to project management and leadership. Cognitive empathy boosts a leader’s ability to communicate effectively with their team and makes their message stronger.

A leader’s message is more likely to be received well if it comes from a place of understanding of the other person’s perspective and feelings. If the leader uses affective empathy, it could also be helpful in deepening their understanding of those feelings, but actually feeling them is not overly helpful for a leader.

Cybersecurity Professionals and Leadership

Cognitive and Affective empathy are both a part of being an effective leader. High cognitive empathy and low affective empathy will bring out the most effective leaders in any organization. Technical leaders who demonstrate cognitive empathy well will be able to bring out the best in themselves and their team members.

For any leader looking for more information and help with using empathy in their leadership, my book, The Smartest Person in the Room, has effective strategies for deploying the Secure Methodology in cybersecurity contexts. Your leadership is a work in progress, and it’s time to work on the empathetic tools that will make you the best leader you can be.

Check Out The Smartest Person in The Room