Creating a Knowledge-Sharing Culture at Work
How do people hide knowledge at work? What can you do about it?
Posted May 5, 2019
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: “Knowledge is power.” In a work setting, having information can be a very powerful thing. Unfortunately, some people like to keep this power for themselves and use it purely for their own benefit. This is known as “knowledge hoarding” and “knowledge hiding,” and it can be detrimental to relationships at work and ultimately detrimental to an organization’s performance. When knowledge hoarding is rife, employees tend to be less satisfied, trust is low, productivity suffers, and valuable organizational knowledge can be easily lost.
What does hiding look like? The work of Catherine Connelly and her colleagues tells us people are skilled at finding ways to avoid sharing their knowledge in ways that doesn’t make it seem like they are.
- They might avoid sharing your knowledge with you by telling you that they will share it but never do (being evasive about when they will do it, postponing doing it because they are “busy”, hoping you’ll forget or give up).
- They might pretend they don’t know or don’t have the information you are after, when they really do.
- Or they might find reasons for not sharing, such as pretending they are not allowed to share it, when in fact they could.
When people hide their knowledge at work from you, research shows it increases the chance you will “reciprocate” with hiding knowledge from them in the future. On the other hand, when employees freely share knowledge and information with each other, this enhances feelings of belonging, builds rapport, makes people feel more competent, encourages collaboration and teamwork, and improves outcomes for the whole organisation.
Past research shows that being too busy (work overload) and competition between workers can stop people from sharing knowledge. In a recent study my colleagues and I published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, we also found that jobs that allow you to autonomously make decisions and jobs that are cognitively challenging (that is, require you to deal with information and solve complex problems) encourage knowledge sharing and discourage knowledge hiding. However, we found that when you perceive that your colleagues rely on your knowledge to complete their work (called task interdependence), you are more inclined to hide your knowledge from them!
We further discovered that job autonomy and cognitive demands increased people’s feelings of enjoyment and meaning at work, which motivates knowledge sharing. However, task interdependence increased people’s sense that they were working to please others (get their approval or not being criticized), motivating knowledge hiding instead.
How can you create a work environment where ‘sharing is caring’ and where employees are more likely to share information than hoard it? We have three tips for you:
- Design work in a way that encourages sharing and promotes the right type of motivation. Give stimulating work that uses brain cells and give people autonomy. Don’t overload people (which creates time pressure). Be careful when creating too many “dependencies” between workers as it can also create pressure.
- Create a cooperative culture. Do not create competition through individual incentives or through labelling people as winners versus losers or publicly comparing them (for example, what messages do performance appraisals send?).
- Act as a role model and share your knowledge with others. Show you trust others to make good use of the knowledge you share with them. Also make sure you use the knowledge they share with you competently and with integrity.
This post was co-authored with Courtenay McGill.
Connelly, C. E., & Zweig, D. (2015). How perpetrators and targets construe knowledge hiding in organizations. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 24, 479–489.
Connelly, C. E., Zweig, D., Webster, J., & Trougakos, J. P. (2012). Knowledge hiding in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 64–88.
Connelly, C. E., Ford, D. P., Turel, O., Gallupe, B., & Zweig, D. (2014). “I'm busy (and competitive)!” Antecedents of knowledge sharing under pressure. Knowledge Management Research and Practice, 12, 74–85.
Gagné, Tian, A., M., & Soo, C., Wang, B., Ho, K. S. B., & Hosszu, K. (2019). Different motivations for knowledge sharing and hiding: The role of motivating work design. Journal of Organizational Behavior. Advance online publication.