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Cultivating Security Culture: Taking Humans from Risk to Asset

The cyber threat landscape is evolving more rapidly than ever in the face of new digital advancements such as AI. Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) are finding that to continue to provide quality security for company assets and information, efforts must reach beyond physical and digital technical controls. One of the most effective and challenging endeavors is building a strong security culture within the organization, effectively transforming humans from the perceived weakest link to a remarkable asset in the defense against cyber threats.

A group of young professionals gather to bump fists to show teamwork

The Human Element

Historically humans have been considered the soft underbelly of organizations when it comes to cybersecurity. However, it is essential to recognize that people are also a crucial component in the security equation. From employees to executives, everyone plays a role in the protection of sensitive data. Rather than viewing humans as a liability, CISOs should focus on leveraging their potential to become significant players in the cybersecurity strategy.   A strong security culture can anchor its roots in the same human core traits that leave people vulnerable to attacks. Threat actors know how to impact the humans of the organization.  Make sure that the security program does as well.

Empowerment Through Education

The key element of any successful security culture is education. Employees should be well-informed about the latest cyber threats, best practices, and the importance of their role in protecting organizational data. Regular training sessions and awareness programs can empower individuals to make informed decisions and recognize potential security risks. Often CISOs fall into the trap of checking the regulatory box when it comes to employee education.  It is important to go beyond checking the box to provide engaging and interactive content to drive true learning and help employees feel validated in their role as it pertains to cybersecurity.

A Phased Approach

Building a security culture is not something that can be mass-produced and put on like the latest trending pair of sneakers. CISOs should adopt a phased approach that includes assessing the current security posture, defining clear policies, and gradually implementing changes. By breaking down the process into manageable steps, organizations can minimize resistance to change and foster a more receptive environment. CISOs should visualize where the security culture should ideally be in 3 years or even 1 year and decide what key indicators will determine whether the organization is on track to meet this goal.  Checking back on these as changes are implemented and keeping results between the navigational beacons is imperative. Properly chosen indicators will advise leaders as to whether their progress is too grueling or too relaxed in pace.

The Proactive Shift

Shifting from a reactive to a proactive mindset is increasingly crucial to success in cybersecurity. With threat actors using free tools with low access to entry, security professionals are in a constant race to stay ahead. Employees should feel encouraged to report potential security threats promptly and without fear of reprisal. CISOs and security teams should celebrate employees appropriately when bringing forward credible threat data rather than solely interacting to correct negative actions. Establishing open communication channels fosters a collaborative environment where everyone is collectively responsible for the organization's security. To do this successfully, security teams must evolve past being the trolls under the bridge that come out to wave a policy club at wayfaring users and start to treat users as partners.

Lead by Example

CISOs and senior leadership must lead by example when it comes to security practices. Demonstrating a commitment to cybersecurity sends a powerful message throughout the organization. When employees witness organization leaders actively prioritizing security, it is more likely they internalize the importance of these measures and adopt a security-first mindset.  This means CISOs are practicing good security hygiene and actively working to improve security posture as well as making these efforts visible.  If the organization is afforded the luxury of a board or set of chiefs who are open to fully engaging in security culture, CISOs should be willing to give them resources and have a dialog.  Offering workshops and free training resources is a great way to increase leadership engagement as well as encouraging the C Suite to read up on security trends.  A security-minded senior leadership team drives a strong security culture and can become a CISO's biggest ally in achieving a mature security posture.

Recognition and Reward

Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in shaping behavior. Recognize and reward individuals and teams that consistently exhibit good security practices. Whether through employee recognition programs, incentives, or other means, acknowledging and celebrating success helps reinforce the desired security culture.  While end users may not be solving the latest cloud configuration puzzles, they are perfectly capable of reporting suspicious emails or effectively using an enterprise password manager rather than writing down their overly simplified passwords in plain text.  A simple recognition program can serve both to make risk indicators visible and to gamify and reward positive security hygiene. Find ways to meet users where they are and appreciate the efforts put forth.  Help them feel like the security team's greatest ally, and that may materialize.

Invest in Human Risk Management

While human involvement is crucial, technology will always provide an additional layer. Implementing advanced cybersecurity solutions and automation tools can augment human efforts, reducing the risk of human error and enhancing overall security effectiveness.  Put monitoring in place for risky human behaviors such as interacting with malicious emails or sending out unencrypted PII.  Actively perform control testing on data access and web content filtering.  An important piece of this that CISOs miss is relating that back to the users in a way that is meaningful in growing the security culture.  Let users know what risky behaviors are happening and what risks are associated.  Build an education strategy around the risk data generated. Encourage the reduction of these risks by using some of the other tools put in place.


Building a security culture within an organization requires a holistic and strategic approach as well as a bit of unprecedented connection with the humans of an organization. By recognizing the role that humans can play in cybersecurity and fostering a culture of awareness, education, and proactive engagement, CISOs can take the humans in an organization from being a risk to being a security asset. A robust security culture is not just a goal but a necessity for safeguarding sensitive data and ensuring the long-term success of the organization. 


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