Keeping it right before it goes wrong: earliest prevention of insider threats in the workplace

Today is the start of Insider Threat Awareness Month. I would like to contribute to this month by discussing the ways in which we as organizations, leaders and colleagues could prevent insider threats arising in the workplace at its earliest stages. And not by looking at the potential insider but by looking at ourselves.

By Elsine van Os.

On LinkedIn

Have you ever felt torn between the direction that your company is taking and the views you are holding yourself? For example, your company has decided to retain its operations in Russia after the war in the Ukraine broke out. And you’re against it. Or you are in complete disagreement with the COVID measures your company is taking. You might be an employee or manager who has strong political views, but you wonder whether you can and should express this as it could pose significant friction in the workplace. You feel gradually alienated from the workplace and you might become angry or disgruntled. These are examples of the societal pressure cooker we are all in, and the dynamic it could pose in the workplace. A workplace is not a bubble and if we want to stay ahead of the challenges to come, we need to remain aware of what’s going on in society to prevent it becoming a breeding ground for disgruntlement in the office, losing the connection with each other as co-workers. Workplace loyalty is one of the most important mitigators of insider risk. For this, a connection to the workplace, a shared identity, is essential, but how can we ensure this? This question goes to the heart of preventing insider risk at its earliest stages.

I would like to take one key theme in society highlighting the relevance in the workplace and the link with insider risk: Polarization. Society seems to be further apart and polarized than ever before. This is reflected in the workplace. Polarization is the divergence of attitudes away from the center, towards ideological extremes. Polarization is interesting and important because it is about reinforcing “us-them” thinking, which can easily escalate into a violent conflict and tribalism. It influences where we live, with whom we work or socialize. Specifically, in the workplace, it influences who we hire, who we promote, who we talk with and cooperate with whom we retain and ultimately who gets disgruntled as a consequence of this.

Considering the increasing concerns of polarization, how to address this to maintain this psychological contract and connectedness at work preventing insider threats at its earliest stage? I believe there are three key areas to consider:

    1. Building a shared identity at work: Many organizations — including companies, schools, and even families — are set up to compete individually for rewards. But research shows that if people come together to work for common rewards, it provides a foundation for cooperation, coordination, better collective problem-solving and a shared identity. Examine your bonus structures and replace competitive systems with such collective rewards, ones that promote cooperation between employees.
    2. Cultural sensitivity: Cultural sensitivity and sensitivity in general across organisations is becoming a must for all. Erin Meyer has developed a way to frame and understand the work behaviour in various national cultures in her book “The Culture Map”. She has formulated a framework of eight different scales. Each of the eight scales is described as a continuum between the two ends which are diametric opposite or at least competing positions. It showcases, there are very different ways in how to build trust, how to communicate, how to provide feedback (especially if it’s negative), how to change behaviour and how to exert leadership. In a globalized world, it is key to keep understanding each other and remaining effective and productive.
    3. Personal role modeling: The leader of today, or even all employees (we should all be role models) has to keep stretching him/herself, keep learning and adapting. Particularly in the context of what we are discussing here, the subject of polarization, there are two key subjects of importance: 1. Self-reflection- Be careful not to be manipulated by your ‘ingroup’ and social media yourself. And be mindful of your own use of language, your choice of words, not to alienate people from you. And 2 Communication- If a situation or debate comes to a high, keep communicating professionally. Meaning: time your communications right (are you both ready for it?); check what’s underneath the surface (what are your and the other person’s needs?); challenge yourself (do I actually understand things right and what is right?) and seek out opposing views; and when there’s no common ground whatsoever, always keep the door open.

Bringing this back to ourselves as insider risk professionals, think about your mandate in your organization. Does your insider risk team have the mandate to look at the prevention of insider threats in the workplace? If not, please consider this as it’s a very strong starting position for your programme. Does your organization perhaps already have programmes to deal with the concerns outlined above? Some companies have. We can learn from each other. But most importantly, be a role model yourself. Reflect on yourself and how you might be involved in heated debates and keep connecting with each other.

Enjoy Insider Threat Awareness Month and if you’re interested in discussing this further, please join my session on this topic at the Insider Risk Summit. I’d very welcome your thoughts and comments. I’ll be sharing more on the subject throughout the month, also on my twitter account.

Further read: The Power of Us by Jay van Bavel and Dominic Packer & The Culture Map from Erin Meyer.

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