Do you share or hide what you know with your work colleagues? by Bhuvan Israni

5 Sep, 2022

A good, supportive organisational culture is required to overcome employees hiding knowledge in the workplace

Knowledge sharing is critical to a company's success. Lots of employees have knowledge that is valuable to their colleagues, but they are unwilling to share this with their colleagues. Research suggests that about 50% of employees purposely withhold, conceal or mislead knowledge that has been requested by another person.

Catherine Connelly, who has extensively worked on the topic of knowledge hiding, defines it as the act of intentionally not providing information or providing information that is not what the seeker wants. It's different from knowledge hoarding, which is the deliberate concealment of knowledge that is relevant to another but not requested. Knowledge hoarding might be slightly easier for the employees as it doesn’t require any specific skills or techniques because the knowledge is not being requested.

We know that knowledge hiding can happen in three ways. First of all, there's evasiveness. There is where employees give either inappropriate information and knowledge or mislead others about the knowledge they possess when they are requested to share it.

Another way in which employees can hide knowledge is by acting dumb and pretending that they do not possess what is requested or not able to understand the knowledge seeker's question. Last but not least is rationalised knowledge hiding. This means that the hider gives the reasons for not sharing the required knowledge, such as that knowledge sharing is not allowed by managers or supervisors.

Many researchers have tried to figure out why many employees do not share their job knowledge and skills with their colleagues. Claudia Toma and Fabrizio Butera explained knowledge hiding in terms of "knowledge is power" syndrome. They said people's intentions to conceal knowledge is a strategy which enables them to attain competitive advantage and increase their own interests within the organisation in which they are working. If employees hoard information, they might feel they are indispensable and irreplaceable.

Khalid Jamil pointed out that knowledge hiding is not necessarily an employee's intention to directly harm other organisation members, but a negative reaction of employees to unsupportive and abusive supervision. As suggested by displaced aggression theory, when employees confront an unsupportive leader, they are more likely to react by targeting innocent victims, namely, their colleagues but not the leaders.

Research also found that negative interpersonal experiences, such as workplace bullying and negative workplace gossip, hasten the exhaustion of employee resources, such as time, energy, emotions and organisational identity, leading them to hide knowledge.

Studies suggest that knowledge hiding among co-workers or between supervisors and subordinates can harm workplace relationships, which can even lead to a trust crisis. A 2015 study emphasised that knowledge hiding can result in a vicious circle of rejecting knowledge sharing. Studies also find that knowledge hiding has significant negative effects on team performance, innovation, sustainability, learning and absorptive capability.

Having an organisation that shares its skills and expertise keeps the organisation from falling behind. This makes it essential to encourage knowledge sharing among employees. A good, supportive organisational culture is required to overcome knowledge hiding in the workplace. It’s an uphill battle to create a culture of knowledge sharing if an organisation doesn’t have a good, conducive, supportive work atmosphere.

Organisations have to keep looking for ways to prevent knowledge hoarding from finding its way into their company’s culture. Emotional bonds such as reciprocity and trust among team members can make employees give up hiding too much knowledge. Leaders must lead by example and managers and team leads must make knowledge sharing and documentation a consistent part of their workflow. Only then can they encourage their team members to share knowledge amongst themselves.

A lack of incentives for knowledge sharing and the lack of supervisor feedback will lead employees to hide knowledge. Employees want to be recognized for their work, but workers aren’t typically appreciated when they share knowledge with their colleagues. Often, they’re given little or no feedback, leaving them unsure if their knowledge sharing was useful. Appreciation and recognition are some of the positive reinforcers which shape behaviour. Even a simple thank you is an easy and clear way for teammates to show their appreciation for the effort and transparency of their colleagues.

Knowledge sharing helps teammates stay connected. The more knowledge they share, the more they shape and define their company’s culture. Inspiring others with your information, knowledge and skill gives a 'upbeat feeling’ so don’t miss the joy of sharing knowledge at workplace.

This article was previously published on RTE Brainstorm