When it comes to cybersecurity, our minds usually jump to complicated technical protections that only your IT department understands. And while these safeguards are certainly important, the truth is hackers are increasingly focusing on social engineering attacks to get into our networks. In fact, phishing attacks are now the number one cause of successful data breaches. Employees are therefore often the first line of defense against cyber attacks. That’s why more and more cybersecurity experts are emphasizing the importance of security training for employees. Business owners need to feel confident that their employees are developing online behaviors that keep the organization secure. The problem, however, is that traditional training programs aren’t always successful in achieving these behavior changes. This is, in part, because training programs too often use “gotcha!” methods when employees make a mistake, which only discourages employees instead of motivating them. Organizations should therefore focus on programs that use positive reinforcement in security training.

One popular form of cybersecurity training is phish simulation programs, where employees are spent emails designed to look like popular phishing scams. The problem, however, is that these programs always always rely on the gotcha method. When an employee clicks on a link in a fake phishing email, typically they will see a screen telling them they got caught and are then instructed to watch an informative video. The problem is that this approach causes the employee to associate negative emotions with the training and therefore reduces the likelihood  of sustained behavior change. Simply put, this type of training creates a punitive environment that discourages the individual but doesn’t create meaningful change.

Instead, one study has shown that using positive reinforcement in security training actually produces safer, longer lasting online habits. Instead of punishing bad behavior, it’s actually more effective to focus on rewarding behavior you want to see, such as reporting phish: “By focusing on helping people feel successful, the campaign produced a positive result: a 30% reduction in overall phish susceptibility, and for individuals who had already been identified as habitual “phish clickers”, a reduction from 35% susceptivity to 0%.”

The key is the associate positive behaviors with positive feelings. It’s a small thing, but the impact could help businesses save a lot of time and money down the road.

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