There’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:
- A scientific experiment discovered that empathy boosts creativity.
- A study revealed that an empathy deficit can cost brands over $200 million in revenue annually.
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.