The American View: What’s Good for the Goose Can Sometimes Corrupt the Goslings

I’m exasperated with the unkillable myth that insider threats can spring up, wholly formed, from nothing, as if through spontaneous generation. The bizarre notion suggests that a perfectly normal, benign employee will suddenly “flip a bit” and become an actively malicious actor without any external influence. This idea is nonsense; it’s as realistic as believing that rocks will randomly give birth to flies. So why are us security professionals forced to combat this idea?

My suspicion is that it’s driven by ego defence … Admitting that workers become disgruntled because of their leaders’ malicious acts, mistakes, and failures to act requires leaders to admit some measure of culpability. They’re responsible for creating some insider threats. That truth becomes too uncomfortable to live with, so leaders employ denial to displace responsibility for worker disgruntlement to everyone and everything other than themselves. “It’s not my fault that Jane changed from a model employee to a saboteur … It must be cosmic radiation’s fault.” As if.

Utterly implausible distortions make it impossible for leaders to grapple with insider threat prevention, mitigation, and recovery tasks. When they can’t hold themselves and one another accountable, they can’t make meaningful changes to prevent future manifestations.

Hmmm. As intros go, that seems a bit dark … Let me try to lighten the mood with an example involving buttocks … both literal and metaphorical.

I served on active duty in the Army back in the nineties. My second assignment was a junior staff role in a medical battalion headquarters. I was the assistant S-2/3 – the Intelligence and Operations gopher – reporting directly to the battalion Executive Officer (the second in command). Most of our work involved planning deployments, exercises, and support missions. Lots of paperwork. Boring, but necessary, because the four medical companies in our battalion didn’t have the capability to perform these tasks for themselves.

Every soldier that ever served understands that successful field work requires extensive logistical preparation.

The worst part of the job, as far as I was concerned, was working so close to the battalion commander. Our Big Boss was a lifelong Pentagon bureaucrat. He had only been given command of our unit after he whiffed two promotion boards. By regulation, the man should have been forcibly retired. Instead, his buddies at the “five-sided wind tunnel” arranged to get their pal a field command to make him seem more “competitive” on his third try.

The Big Boss was, bluntly, a clueless dolt. He had no idea how to lead. He didn’t understand his function as a commander. He only knew that he had to “pass” his command assignment with a minimally acceptable performance rating. This anxiety manifested in petty micromanagement, indecisiveness, misguided focus, and mild paranoia. They man didn’t want anyone to realize that he was crap at his job … but everyone knew. It was impossible to miss.

We’d all worked out the depressing truth early on. The four company commanders came to despise the battalion commander. By the second year under his “leadership,” the commanders’ morale was shot. Their professional bearing eroded to the point where they stopped pretending to care about their own futures. I’d talked to the commanders of A company and HHC company and learned that both men intended to resign their commissions as soon as their command assignments were up. Forget a “career” … they were too disgusted to continue.

The company commanders’ professional despair began to manifest in “pranks” played around the office. As officers, they wouldn’t pick on the enlisted – that was unacceptable abuse of power. Other officers, though, were fair game since they were (more or less) peers. Lucky us.

Just because most of us shared the same rank doesn’t mean we were “peers.” The gulf between former enlisted who “went mustang” to become officers and the newly-hatched lieutenants who had never served might as well have been an unbridgeable gulf.

Captain Kancho (not his real name), the HHC company commander, took to startling officers with a sudden painful “goose.” The captain would sneak up behind someone then suddenly jam his fingers into his victim’s anus as hard as he could, usually provoking a scream of surprise and a leap into the air. Captain Koncho had perfected his stalking technique to get the best possible reaction … painfully prodding his prey at a time and place where their reaction would get them horribly embarrassed. He believed he was a funny guy.

Capt. Knocho got me one sweltering summer morning while I was waiting to deliver a draft memorandum to the battalion commander for signature. When I arrived at the Big Boss’s office, the man’s desk phone rang. In accordance with military rules of courtesy, I stood silently in the colonel’s open doorway at the position of parade rest, waiting until my superior finished his call. It was his prerogative to dismiss me so I didn’t have to wait on him. He didn’t. Being an insecure petty tyrant, he enjoyed forcing his subordinates to wait on him, sometimes for hours.

So, there I was. Stuck standing stock still in the Big Boss’s office doorway, unable to move or speak, while the Big Boss chatted with a peer. The building was stuffy and hot. I was already fatigued from having worked until sundown the night before. To add insult to injury, the Big Boss’s side of the conversation was insipid. My situation was, in retrospect, a perfect moment for Capt. Kancho to strike.

I was just about to doze off when I felt a sudden sharp pain in the bum. The force of the strike lifted me off my feet, as intended. It hurt … enough to make me want to jump forward and cry out. The thing was, I knew that if I interrupted the colonel’s private phone call I’d get severely chewed out (at best) and possibly put on some obnoxious punishment detail (at worst).

Inventory was the go-to punishment in those days. Spend a summer week in a filthy WW2 era warehouse recounting boxes of gauze squares and your morale will melt just like the soles of your boots.

I refused to play. I’d worked out what happened immediately and locked myself down. From where the colonel was sitting, gabbing away, his idiot lieutenant suddenly rose onto the balls of his feet, paused for a second, then silently settled back down to a rock steady parade rest. This was close enough to the authorized strain relief modification that it didn’t dawn on the colonel that anything might be wrong. His conversation continued as if nothing had happened.

I waited until the colonel looked away, then leaned back out of the doorway and swivelled my head left to skewer Capt. Koncho with a murderous glare. Koncho howled with laughter … He was so loud, in fact, that he aroused the colonel’s ire by interrupting the “very important call” and got himself chewed out. I remained stock still and silent in the doorway … and smiled inside.

Capt. Knocho and his buddy from A Company – my previous C.O. – both left the Army in disgust shortly thereafter. To be fair, I’d liked them as people; I believed that they’d genuinely wanted to do the right thing by their people. They seemed like they believed strongly in the Army’s purported values. As officers, though, I was glad to see them go. Their two-year stints working for the Big Boss had corrupted them. Their “pranks,” open disrespect, and lack of commitment made them terrible role models for us lieutenants. The Big Boss’s incompetence had created insider threats that wouldn’t have existing under an adequate superior.

In its own way, Capt. Koncho’s “unannounced proctological procedure” helped push me off the path of becoming an insider threat myself. I hated working at HQ and was actively considering getting out myself. At first, the only thing keeping me “in” was the knowledge that I couldn’t pay back my R.OI.T.C. scholarship if I didn’t fulfil my service obligation. After the captain’s “advance into enema territory,” I got angry. I hated what the captains had become and wanted to prove that I wasn’t as “weak” as I thought they were. So, just as I’d done when “ambushed from the rear,” I stoically endured the rest of the Big Boss’s command tour.

Enduring a terrible boss is a universal human experience. I’ve bonded with more strangers over bad boss stories than I ever have over shared language, citizenship, politics, or hobbies.

Why am I sharing this? Because the two key characters in this (painfully true) story illustrate my point: as far as I could tell, both company commanders and the battalion commander believed that their actions were professionally correct. None of those men ever admitted that their jackwagon behaviour was perceived by their victims as abusive. They all, in their own ways, had created new insider threats where none need exist. I’d heard all of them complain about their junior soldiers’ misconduct as if they couldn’t comprehend why these demoralized and powerless troopers would “act up” under their leadership. They seemed to seriously believe that their subordinates’ delinquency arose from nothing … even though the evidence always pointed right back at their own mistakes.

They were all wrong, as are the legions of managers, directors, and executives in corporate service today who subscribe the false doctrine of spontaneous generation of disgruntlement in the workplace. It isn’t true. It’s never been true. That’s not a thing. Good workers turn bad when we (as leaders) take away their belief that their actions matter, that things can get better, and that abuse won’t be tolerated in the organisation. We turn good workers into insider threats.

I know that’s a hard lesson to accept. Taking responsibility for one’s past and potential failures can be mortifying. I understand why people would want to avoid uncomfortable introspection. It is, however, necessary for success. Even when facing one’s personal and professional shortcomings may feel like a major pain in one’s … aspirations.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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