Knowledge-hoarding is a no-win proposition

Mar 11 2014 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Many of us will be familiar with work environments in which people keep knowledge to themselves. We might even have come across situations where people with critical knowledge protect it as if it were their own property and actively try to hide this knowledge from others, even when this damages team or organizational effectiveness.

One reason that people hang onto knowledge is that it gives them a sense of power and importance because they have specific information that no one else has. Another is a lack of trust: after all, why risk sharing your precious ideas and insights with a colleague if it helps their career, rather than yours? Both feed a culture of secrecy and not sharing, a culture which quickly becomes self-fulfilling and ingrained in the organization.

But according to new research published in the Academy of Management Journal, while hiding knowledge from others in this way is pretty common, it is generally counter-productive.

As with so many things in life, it seems, what goes around comes around. "Employees who intentionally hide more knowledge seem bound to receive such selfish behaviour in return from their co-workers, which will ultimately hurt them and decrease their creativity. This could also be described using the metaphor of shooting yourself in the foot," said the paper's co-author, Professor Matej Cerne of Ljubljana University in Slovenia.

Together with Christina G. I. Nerstad , Anders Dysvik, and Miha Skerlavaj of the BI Norwegian Business School, Professor Cerne carried out both a field study involving 240 workers and group supervisors at two companies in the metal industry and the second a behavioural experiment involving 132 university undergraduates.

They found that not only does hiding knowledge from your colleagues tend to hinder their generation of creative ideas but it can also have negative consequences for the creativity of the knowledge hider. That's because when people hide knowledge, they trigger a reciprocal distrust loop in which their colleagues are unwilling to share knowledge with them in return.

These effects also appear to depend on the type of motivational climate within an organisation, with the negative effects of an individual's hiding knowledge on his/her own creativity enhanced in a performance climate and reduced in a mastery climate.

This implies that efforts to try to boost creativity through competition rather than collaboration are likely to end in to failure, the researchers argue.

"In workplaces that have what we call a performance climate, where employees are encouraged to compete with each other in the belief that this enhances performance, workers will certainly have an incentive to hide knowledge," Cerne said. "But they're not likely to gain from it, because in the tit-for-tat culture that prevails in such settings co-workers will respond in kind and the culprit's standing with the boss will probably suffer,"

"In contrast, knowledge-hiders can probably count on forbearance in companies with what we call a mastery climate, where the emphasis is on cooperation and learning. But, given the lack of emphasis on individual rewards in such settings, there is little incentive to hide knowledge.

"In short," he added, "it's a no-win option either way - incentive with retaliation or forbearance without incentive."

"What Goes Around Comes Around: Knowledge-Hiding,Perceived Motivational Climate and Creativity," is published in the February/March 2014 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.