If cybersecurity were just a collection of robots, maybe the need for people skills wouldn’t exist. However, we’re not at that juncture yet. There’s always going to be a need for human intervention in the cybersecurity war.
People skills are hard, not just for technical folks. It’s more than just being personable or sociable. Much of it deals with communication, and as a collective human race, we all have work to do.
The concept of people skills as necessary for cybersecurity roles is something relatively new. In many cases, hiring staff was probably 99% based on their technical aptitude and experience. There was no test on people skills, and leaders often thought they’d be fine. Unfortunately, that’s not true, and I’ll go as far as to say that technical acumen is something to seek but is less important than those relating to communication, collaboration, and adaptability.
This argument is the basis for my book, The Smartest Person in the Room. I’ll sum up how technical skills cannot trump people skills with this example:
Would you keep or let go of your most proficient technical employee if they didn’t align with your culture? And by culture, I mean they were combative, condescending, and had no emotional intelligence.
I would, without a doubt, let that person walk. Why? Because you can upskill, train, and coach a person to become more technically able. Cybersecurity is an industry that’s constantly changing and requires agility. Are you going to let an inflexible, stubborn person run the show? Trust me, I’ve known many of these people over the years, and it’s not worth it. They corrode culture and never learn because they believe they are the smartest person in every room.
So that brings us back to people skills and their importance in cybersecurity teams. Next, we’ll examine why cyber professionals struggle with them, the most critical skills for success, and how to fix the problem.
Technical People Often Struggle with People Skills
My analysis of the industry is from my own experience. I’m not lumping every technical person into one category. Many people working in cybersecurity have these skills, but it would be a disservice to pretend this isn’t a major problem. So, why do technical people struggle with people skills?
Black and White Thinking
When we’re young, black-and-white thinking makes sense. We don’t have the experiences or brain power to see the shades of gray. When people are drawn to technical disciplines, they often hold onto some of this perspective.
In coding and math, there is one right answer. However, those things don’t encompass all of cybersecurity. There are actual people behind these attacks, and people are always gray. With this type of subject, communication is critical. You have to ask questions and talk about stuff outside the ones and zeroes.
Insecurity Is a Key Indicator of People Skills Deficiency
Those smartest people in the room types need to be right all the time. They don’t want to hear any alternatives or learn from discussions. They have a massive fear of someone questioning their logic, so they avoid it.
Insecurity means that two-way dialogue is impossible. It’s a dead end, and they’ll resist it through any means necessary.
Honest, Transparent Communication Scares Them
In cybersecurity, clear and open communication is critical to keeping data and systems safe. It doesn’t mean that technical people can’t have conversations and discuss projects cordially. The problem is that they don’t listen or articulate their points very well.
When communication is only surface-level, and no one’s challenging anyone to think more creatively or consider new approaches and information, it’s not effective. It will put your organization at risk in so many ways.
Now that you understand how grave these issues are, you’ll want to seek out staff with the soft skills that will make them successful. Or at least find people with the potential to develop these and have an open mind.
People Skills Cybersecurity Professionals Need
Cyber teams need to be just that. Everyone has to work together, which requires leaning into soft skills rather than hard ones. The following are the most critical ones.
We could all agree that there’s an absence of empathy these days. While empathy is great in the real world, it’s also a core component of successful companies. There’s been considerable research on the value of empathy. Data suggests that those with empathetic managers have higher levels of creativity and engagement. It can also be critical for preventing burnout and turnover.
There are some misunderstandings about empathy. It’s not the same as sympathy. Rather, it’s connecting with another individual and understanding their perspective as your own. Being empathetic also means sharing your feelings with others and letting them do the same.
Empathy is a big part of my book, and I write that a culture without it will fail. The people skills to hone in around empathy include cognitive and affective. Cognitive is logical empathy in that you can understand a person’s mental state. It’s not a feeling; it’s a skill to develop.
Affective empathy is the sharing part where someone can actually feel the emotions of another. In the cyber world, cognitive empathy is the goal. Deeply emotional influence won’t be an asset as you work toward solving technical challenges.
We’ve talked about communication a lot, and in these terms, it’s a specific skill set. Communicating includes how you speak to others as well as how you listen. How you communicate with others consists of your words, tone, and body language. Someone can say something that makes sense and moves the conversation, but people may dismiss it because of an arrogant tone.
The best communicators think about all these things before they express their thoughts. They want to deliver an impactful message but also invite discussion. They are deliberate with their words and work hard to speak with people, not at them.
The second part of communication is listening. Those with poor communication skills only listen to respond. They are looking for things to either validate their “rightness” or be ready to counter something they disagree with, and that’s not listening.
Those that are successful communicators are active listeners. They comprehend what others are saying and give them their attention. The responses are then more thoughtful and helpful.
So, why does communication matter in cybersecurity? Miscommunication or assumptions are a leading cause of cybersecurity failures. You’re also never going to evolve your cybersecurity operations to the next level if your technical folks stay in their own silo and don’t have meaningful conversations that go beyond technical elements.
Of course, adaptability is a sought-after people skill. It’s a dynamic field with new threats emerging every day. Yet, most cyber professionals aren’t flexible. They cling to certainty and will not bend, and that leads to broken states.
I opened this article asking if you’d keep or let someone go who is technically adept but inept at people skills. It’s got to be in their DNA to hack it in cybersecurity. They must adapt to the industry’s dynamics and be open to change within themselves and the team.
A curious nature is critical in technical fields because there’s always a need to uncover things — bugs, breaches, incidents, etc. Having an investigative mindset is good for cybersecurity. These people want to know why. As a result, they are often more natural communicators and collaborators.
They see puzzles to solve and get excited about what they’ll learn and experience. They are eager to innovate, adapt, and try new things. Those are all positives for cybersecurity teams. Curiosity can be a bit contagious, too. Once others see that asking why leads to new information, they may be more apt to ask more questions.
Many think that being vulnerable means being weak. It’s the opposite. Vulnerability as a people skill means that you are honest and willing to share your ideas and opinions, no matter what response they may elicit.
Vulnerability has everything to do with trust. It’s a hard skill to develop for any person. It also requires that the space in which the sharing occurs is a safe one. That’s something you must build for your team. If you do, and there’s trust there, then vulnerability can lead to some great outcomes. No one is scared to be wrong, and that kind of approach is helpful in solving cybersecurity challenges.
Fixing the People Skills Challenges with the Secure Methodology
You can enhance and build soft skills in those willing to do the work. Not everyone will believe they need these or want to change. So, first, you have to take the temperature on how people feel about these skill sets (and their lack of them). Open minds (and hearts) can grow. My book has many exercises, tips, and strategies to develop these in your teams through the Secure Methodology. Get a copy to find out how to use the framework to upskill your people.