fbpx

empathetic leadership

The Value of Empathetic Leadership in Technical Roles

empathetic leadershipThere’s a misconception that leaders, especially in technical fields, should do so with only their brains. They should be logical and data-driven. Those skill sets are important, but leading from the heart is just as important. Empathetic leadership is about compassion for employees and customers. And it fits nicely in cybersecurity, an area that requires trust, communication, and collaboration for success.

Empathy is good for culture and customer loyalty — it’s also good for your bottom line. Many studies have supported this, including one that found that companies that express empathy outperform their competitors. And there’s more to reinforce this idea:

Thus, it would seem that leading with empathy is a win for all if it were only that simple. There are many challenges to building an empathetic business and leadership.

What Is Empathetic Leadership?

What exactly is empathetic leadership? Is it listening? Communicating? Caring? It’s all those things, but specifically, it’s having the ability to understand others’ needs. It’s about being aware of those outside yourself. It’s stepping into the shoes of others. Those are hard to master, and empathy isn’t all innate.

Being empathetic aligns with having emotional intelligence. There are some factors of it that are genetic traits. Women also tend to be able to show it more, but it’s still a skill. Yes, empathy is a skill, one that you can hone and develop if you commit to personal and professional growth. You have to be willing, vulnerable, and open-minded. That, of course, isn’t always how people or leaders think. It requires a fundamental change to become really good at empathy. While change is hard and scary, it’s often the best thing that can happen.

How Can You Apply Empathetic Leadership to Cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is about protection. It would seem a natural parallel with empathy. Yet, most would agree there is a gap here. There’s a lot of focus on technology and tools to fight the cybersecurity war, but there have to be people behind.

In many cases, cybersecurity failures are human-related, not technology-focused. If that’s the case, then we can’t cure it with more systems and products. Instead, we need to focus on the people. And those people need to have an empathetic leader.

Empathy Is a People Skill

There are stereotypes that technical folks are devoid of people skills. That’s not true; they aren’t robots! Often, they get caught up in logic and forget the emotion. It is possible to improve people skills for technical professionals. I write about how to do this in seven steps in my book, The Smartest Person in the Room.

You can develop people skills the same way you do technical ones. Through practice and learning, it’s possible to become more empathetic. To achieve this on a cultural level within a company or firm, it has to start at the top. If leadership doesn’t demonstrate it, it’s hard to expect others to follow.

Empathy Is Hard for Everyone When We Focus on Differences

We can all collectively say the world right now needs more empathy. Compassion and care often get lost, as societal and cultural pressures tell us to look out for number one and focus on our differences. There’s a lot of “us vs. them” mentality in every aspect of life. It’s not hard to find that every time you scroll through social media or turn on the TV.

Why a Differences Mindset Handicaps Cybersecurity

Focusing only on differences creates divides. Those can then manifest as bad behavior within the team and toward other people in a company or even customers. The usual suspects are bullying, posturing, and egotism. Acting in these ways is often rooted in insecurity, as they want to be the smartest person in the room always. Being trapped in your head and only seeing differences leaves little room for empathy.

Lacking Empathy with Clients Can Be a Disaster

Clients, whether internal or external, expect cybersecurity professionals to protect what matters to them. To really understand this, empathy is imperative. Lack of it leads to not looking at specific needs and, instead, offering up a complicated cybersecurity framework. Complex doesn’t mean effective, and many professionals will miss the point.

If leaders don’t practice empathy and expect it in others, security will be much less effective, leaving clients unsatisfied and untrusting.

Colleagues Should Have Reciprocal Empathy

Empathy among the team is just as essential as having it with clients. Leaders model this (or don’t), as well. If a leader never acts with empathy toward their staff, why would they exhibit it with one another?

When there’s a void of empathy in these situations, communication, honesty, and transparency all suffer. It becomes a dysfunction instead of a collaborative working environment. It’s hard to be successful in this setting, no matter how technically astute you are.

The Tangible Value of Empathetic Leadership in Cybersecurity

I’ve shown you some data, studies, and leadership that illustrate the correlation between success and empathy. But how can it support cybersecurity?

  • It supports human connection: More technology and more budgets won’t cure cybersecurity shortcomings. Having sincere human relationships will, and a leader that exhibits this will have an impact.
  • It helps understand the needs of the client: An empathetic leader will dive into the challenges and pain points of the client and have clarity on these points. That’s the ideal foundation to develop a plan that works.
  • It removes the ego: This is a problem in the field. But if a leader’s behavior is egoless and focuses more on listening to others and making careful decisions, this helps all aspects of the company.
  • It improves communication and collaboration: Imagine a leader that never wants to hear anyone else’s thoughts or ideas. Well, we don’t have to imagine it because many leaders like this exist, and they fail over and over. An empathetic leader wants to hear from the team and practices active listening.
  • It helps ensure the right people are on the team: A leader that possesses empathy will use that in hiring and recruiting decisions. They’ll look for these traits in others, realizing soft skills are just as valuable as hard ones. Those smart hiring choices will lead to longer retention as well.

How You Can Cultivate Empathy in Others

If leadership commits to empathy — and they should for the value it delivers — the next step is fostering it in the entire team. Intelligence, knowledge, and experience will only get you so far in cybersecurity. They aren’t nearly as powerful without the missing piece of empathy.

Empathy is Step 6 in my Secure Methodology, and the following are some insights from that practice that can bridge the empathy gap:

  • Realign to emphasize similarities, not differences: Each of us is unique in our own way, but we have more similarities in the long run. That’s the first step for building the skill of empathy. This realignment can help cybersecurity teams immensely. You’re all in this together, and the “enemy” is cybercriminals, not each other.
  • Understand the motivation of others: Motivation and empathy have synergies. If you know someone’s “why,” then it can serve as a way to get them in touch with compassion.
  • Acknowledge wins: If you want technical employees to express empathy, you have to acknowledge their accomplishments. When you do, they feel appreciated for their work and more connected to you.
  • Adapt communication: Technical people often struggle with admitting they don’t know something. As a leader, you need to remember that when you communicate. I recommend not using “why” statements and instead leading with “what” and “how.”

These are a few highlights that demonstrate basics steps to take. There are also exercises to try and other specifics, which you can find in my book. Cultivating empathy is an ongoing process, so there’s really no finish line.

Is Empathy Part of Your Organization?

Right now, if you had to say, as a leader, if empathy is part of your organization, what would the answer be? Few can probably adamantly say yes, and that’s okay. It’s a complex attribute to introduce, cultivate, and maintain.

However, it is possible and provides so many benefits to companies. No matter where you are in the journey, I want to help. You can start by reading my book, The Smartest Person in the Room.

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.

Traits

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.

Communication

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

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]