Why Employees hide their knowledge and How to encourage sharing

July 4, 2016 by ahmed

Originally posted on Ideas For Leaders blog

Key Concept

Employees who refuse to share knowledge, either by playing dumb, being evasive, or saying that other factors are to blame, undermines the cooperation, efficiency and effectiveness of organizations. Understanding how perpetrators and targets view the damage from knowledge hiding is an important step in preventing this behaviour.

Idea Summary

While employees are supposed to share their knowledge with other employees for the benefit of the company, employees will often find a reason to keep that knowledge to themselves. Perhaps they believe that they will lose some status or power; sometimes employees who share knowledge will then be judged or evaluated based on that knowledge; and often employees who don’t trust their colleagues will be reluctant to share knowledge. Situational factors — the knowledge is complex, the knowledge is not task-related, or there is no culture of knowledge sharing in the organization — will also reduce knowledge sharing.

Knowledge can be hidden in different ways, and the consequences vary for each. One type of knowledge hiding is simply playing dumb: professing ignorance when in fact employees have the answers. Another type of knowledge hiding is evasive hiding, in which the perpetrator promises to provide the knowledge but in fact has no intention of doing so. Finally, there is rationalized hiding, in which perpetrators feel that they are unable to provide the knowledge or blame a third party for preventing the sharing of knowledge.

Although recognizing that knowledge hiding often damages relationships and can lead to retaliation (the target refuses to share knowledge in the future), perpetrators and targets have different views on exactly what damage occurs.

From the perspective of the perpetrators:

  1. Evasive action will harm relationships with targets, and also induces them to refuse and avoid sharing knowledge with the perpetrators in the future.
  2. Rationalized hiding harms the relationship with the target but does not induce the target to withhold information in the future.
  3. Playing dumb does not damage relationships, because, perpetrators believe, the targets have no idea the perpetrators have the knowledge. At the same time, the perpetrators acknowledge that targets are likely to withhold knowledge from them in the future: why should targets go out of their way to help people who never help them?

The targets’ reaction is somewhat different.

  1. While perpetrators believe rationalized hiding would harm relationships but not cause them to withhold information in the future, in fact targets respond positively to the explanations, and consider the relationship improved (and are indeed happy to share knowledge in the future).
  2. Conversely, while perpetrators believe playing dumb would not harm relationships but cause them to withhold information in the future, in fact targets respond negatively to the explanations, considering the relationship damaged. And while they don’t retaliate by deliberating not sharing information in the future, they are more likely to withdraw from the perpetrator.
  3. Both perpetrators and targets agree that the worst damage is caused by evasive action. The relationship is damaged, and targets will retaliate by not sharing knowledge in the future.

In short, although the extent of the damage can vary, the unwillingness of employees to share knowledge, which research shows does exist, can damage relationships and seriously undermine the effectiveness of teams or even an entire organization. The fact that perpetrators and targets see the damage differently only compounds the negative impact.

Business Application

Organizations must take steps to limit the damage of knowledge hiding. Among these steps:

  1. Be aware. Many managers and executives may not be aware that knowledge hiding is even a problem. It might be assumed that employees, as no doubt instructed and encouraged, are working as teams and sharing knowledge as appropriate. The first step is monitoring for uncooperative behaviour.
  2. Increase perception of trustworthiness. One reason knowledge is not shared can be a lack of trust among colleagues. As with team building in general, you can increase the perceptions of the trustworthiness of colleagues by emphasizing a shared identity. We are all in this together.
  3. Enhance a sharing climate. Employees (and managers) are naturally influenced by the environment and culture of the organization. It’s important to enhance the sharing climate by emphasizing the vital importance of knowledge sharing and rewarding it. If, for example, employees find themselves under fire for knowledge they shared, that knowledge in the future is going to stay hidden.
  4. Open the lines of communication. As shown above, perpetrators are not fully aware of the consequences of different types of knowledge hiding on the other. Increasing the social action and communication between parties will help perpetrators understand the negative impact of their behaviour, and lessen the desire of targets to retaliate.
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