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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

Why Do Technical People Struggle with People Skills? And How Can Companies Fix It?

7 Step Secure Methodology - Christian Espinosa
The Secure Methodology Improves People and Life Skills

People skills are a challenge for many individuals. It’s often a combination of personality and experiences. Technical people often get put in a category of lacking them. While this is not universal, it does account for some of the failings of cybersecurity strategies.

Without a robust soft skill set, these professionals get caught in a cycle of bad communication practices, a lack of curiosity, and posturing. It’s time to peel back the onion on why they struggle in this area and how to fix it.

Why Technical People Struggle with People Skills

This analysis comes from years of experience, research, and asking the hard questions. Again, it’s not a condemnation of those in technical fields. Many have a nice balance and are thriving. Through the years, I’ve met and worked with many highly articulate, open, and excellent cybersecurity experts. However, in general, this is the exception, not the rule.

In my book, The Smartest Person in the Room, I lay out the evidence for why this struggle is all too real.

They See the World Exclusively in 1s and 0s

It’s hard to communicate and collaborate with others when your world is solely 1s and 0s or very black and white. The reality is that the world, people, and cybersecurity are gray. That’s hard for some technical minds to grasp.

In a lot of technical disciplines, there is a right answer and a wrong answer. No discussion required. It’s probably more applicable to some areas of math and science. However, cybersecurity isn’t just math and science. It’s an ever-evolving field. New risks and threats emerge all the time.

Further, it requires asking questions and understanding business needs. That can send some technical folks into a free-fall. They don’t have a naturally curious nature in public, so they fall back on what they know and don’t try to find out what they don’t. They fear curiosity in front on others may appear as a lack of knowing or incompetence.

Insecurity Leads to Soft Skill Failure

Many cybersecurity professionals never want to be wrong — another reflection of black/white thinking. The feeling often comes because they are insecure. They cling to certainty, and interacting with other people and having meaningful conversations are too uncertain.

They let insecurity guide what they do, pushing back on the need for two-way dialogue. They’ll figure it out on their own and don’t want to entertain outside ideas. That then leads to posturing.

Poor Communication Sinks Cybersecurity

There is a misconception that technical jobs don’t require communication skills. That’s not true. Every role depends on communication, and when that’s a challenge, it’s a house of cards filled with assumptions. It’s the biggest shortfall for many technical people. It doesn’t mean they aren’t articulate or don’t have a good vocabulary. It means they can’t converse in a healthy and productive manner. Having honest and transparent communication is about listening more than talking. Unfortunately, many people aren’t good at that. These communication issues will bring down any company department.

People fail at communication for many reasons, as discussed above — insecurity, fear, a closed mind, a lack of empathy. This revelation isn’t unknown. A study on business communications found that 89 percent of respondents believe effective communication is important. Yet, 80 percent of those same people said that communication in their company was average or poor.

However, it’s not a dead end. There are ways to develop communication and other soft skills.

Fixing the People Skills Problem for Technical Professionals

Attaining better people skills was a self-journey. The consequences, however, didn’t just benefit me. They helped me create a process that any technical employee can navigate and come out the other side.

There’s no magic fix for evolving people, and they must want to change. So, that’s a barrier for sure. If you’re going to invest in helping your team, you want to know they’re open and have a growth-mindset.

What I’ve developed to counter this problem is the Secure Methodology. The following is a quick review of the framework and how it works. By employing it, people can start to see the gray in the world and be better cybersecurity professionals and experience personal growth as well.

The Secure Methodology

Step One: Awareness

The first step is about being aware of yourself and others. The lack of awareness in a professional setting causes you to miss blind spots. It also causes relationship issues at work because without awareness, communication is poor, and posturing reigns.

The mind has to open itself to new perspectives to achieve awareness. That requires coaching on communication and understanding what motivates a person. There are exercises that can strengthen the awareness “muscle” and open eyes.

Step Two: Mindset

You either have a fixed or growth mindset. Those with poor people skills are trapped in fixed. It’s not permanent. The key to a growth mindset is accountability. It’s no secret that a growth mindset is critical for cybersecurity. So, you must open those minds. The best way to approach it is to encourage reflection, ask the right questions, and urge quick decision-making.

Step Three: Acknowledgment

Acknowledgment in the workplace is a rampant issue. In cybersecurity, without positive acknowledgment, employees fall into disengagement and resentment. Many times, if there is acknowledgment, it’s negative, which feeds into further anger.

The other issue is that a cybersecurity team that receives no acknowledgment can’t concede their overly complex framework isn’t working. They lose the ability to simplify. To end this cycle, you should recognize their positives in the present before you expect them to master acknowledgment. You can improve this by building rapport and trust with exercises from the book.

Step Four: Communication

We’ve talked a lot about communication because it’s applicable in every aspect of nurturing people. We’ve identified the reasons why people are bad at it. Another critical factor is that technical folks like to speak geek as a sign of their higher intelligence. For those outside the industry, it may as well be another language, and technical professionals have to interact with non-technical folks. They build a wall with it instead of a bridge.

Shared language is inclusive and promotes active listening. Getting to this involves reframing and simplification, achievable through specific activities.

Step Five: Monotasking

The world wrongly praises multitasking, believing it epitomizes capability. In fact, humans weren’t born to multitask. It’s a real problem in the cybersecurity field, leading to errors and mistakes. It also creates a lot of anxiety — as if anyone needs more of that.

Retraining to monotask means that you can focus completely on one task. It can be much more productive than trying to do five things at once. Fostering this behavior includes blocking time for specific tasks and blocking out distractions (that means not answering a call, email, or text immediately).

Step Six: Empathy

A cybersecurity culture without empathy will not succeed, at least not long-term. You may wonder why it matters in technical roles. It matters in everything, really. The problem in the workplace is an us vs. them mentality. There’s no room for consideration and compassion in this model.

Empathy is a core people skill, but we’re not born with it. It’s something people develop. When it’s nonexistent, technical people don’t care about their clients or their data. Nor do they have concern for colleagues. If you’ve been able to make it through the first five steps, then you’re on a path to spreading empathy. There are also specific activities to do on the team level to develop it further.

Step Seven: Kaizen

The final step is a Japanese term meaning “continuous improvement.” In terms of the Secure Methodology, it’s a more tangible action of root cause analysis. Root cause analysis helps understand real problems and how to improve them. That applies to cybersecurity and people skills. Mastering it requires constant change and adaption, and you can’t get there without the former six steps.

Do Better People Skills Really Lead to Better Cybersecurity?

You may look at the Secure Methodology and think it sounds great in theory but are skeptical about its real-world implications. That’s fair. Again, there isn’t a guarantee because nothing is. What you should know is that it’s proven. I’ve witnessed it, and I can without hesitation say that better people skills lead to better cybersecurity.

If this is a path you want to send your team on because you realize the deficit of soft skills, your next step is to get the complete picture of the Secure Methodology by reading my book, The Smartest Person in the Room. In it, you’ll find activities specific to the seven steps to build the people skills they’re missing.

Check Out The Smartest Person in The Room

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