Empathy 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.