There is no “I” in team, we are told. It’s important for workers to share information and collaborate. So why would employees deliberately hide knowledge from their colleagues? And yet they do, all the time.
Knowledge-hiding in the workplace is common and takes different forms, some more harmful than others, according to new research by Catherine E. Connelly, an associate business professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and David Zweig, an associate management professor at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.
Theirs was not a study of inadvertent communication failures. (That’s a research topic in itself.) Rather, the professors examined the deliberate attempt “to withhold or conceal knowledge that has been requested by another member of the organization.” Based on surveys at a range of workplaces, they were able to trace a “continuum of deception” among knowledge hiders, Professor Zweig said in an interview.
On the least-damaging end of the spectrum, employees felt that they were justified in concealing information when, for example, it was deemed confidential. (Indeed, revealing a piece of juicy confidential gossip could be grounds for dismissal in some cases.)
Further along on the spectrum, the researchers found that workers might withhold knowledge that a colleague legitimately needs by “playing dumb” — saying they will provide the information later and never following through — or by giving incorrect or incomplete information.
Why would people act in a way so contrary to their employer’s interests? Because the cliché that knowledge is power holds some truth, Professor Zweig said. “Even though every organization touts the benefits of teams,” he said, “we’re often rewarded individually for our performance.”
But as knowledge hiders guard their individual interests, they may fail to anticipate the negative consequences of their actions. People are often aware that their colleagues are hiding information from them, Professor Zweig said. This may be interpreted as a “rejection episode” in the target’s eyes and result in retaliation against the perpetrator, creating a vicious cycle of concealment, he said.
According to a 2013 study led by Matej Cerne of the Center of Excellence for Biosensors, Instrumentation and Process Control in Slovenia, knowledge-hiding “prevents colleagues from generating creative ideas, but it may also have negative consequences for the creativity of the knowledge hider.” In other words, you can’t generate new ideas if you’re suspiciously guarding your territory.
Many people try to rationalize their withholding ways. They may tell themselves that they are thinking of the greater good of the organization, or that they are in danger of losing their jobs if they don’t keep their superior knowledge status intact.
“Knowledge-hiding is not necessarily intended to harm an individual or the organization,” according to the study by Professors Connelly and Zweig. But in some cases the practice sounds downright Machiavellian, where, as Professor Zweig put it, people look at others as pawns and consider themselves experts in self-serving manipulation. That is something he would like to investigate, he said.
How can organizations stop the damaging effects of knowledge-hiding? “Put in incentives to reward people on team outcomes versus solely on individual outcomes,” Professor Zweig said. He noted that many companies devote considerable resources to systems that encourage the transfer of knowledge. But if managers continue to reward individual achievement over group efforts, all that expense may well be for naught.