An employee returning to work from vacation needs to learn the new computer system that was installed when she was away. However, the co-worker who agrees to teach her leaves out vital information deliberately, which results in her struggling to do her job.
This workplace scenario is just one example of the knowledge-hiding behavior unearthed by David Zweig, UTSC professor of organizational behaviour, and his colleagues—John Trougakos, also at UTSC; Catherine Connelly at McMaster University; and Jane Webster at Queen’s University. It’s commonplace for employees to conceal knowledge from one another and that’s bad news for the companies they work for.
“Knowledge is power,” notes Zweig. “People think they can have power by holding onto it.”
Other researchers had already identified knowledge hoarding, wherein an employee tries to accumulate and monopolize knowledge. It’s related to knowledge hiding, but in the latter behaviour, a direct request for knowledge is refused.
In researching how and why knowledge hiding happens, Zweig and his colleagues found three distinct categories. In the first one—rationalized hiding—there's a good reason to not share information; for instance, it might be a personnel matter intended to be kept confidential. The second category—evasive hiding—takes place when an employee pretends to provide the requested knowledge but doesn't do it thoroughly. The third kind is simply playing dumb—pretending to not have the knowledge or to not understand the request at all.
According to Zweig, knowledge hiding can help an employee in the short run, but in the long term, co-workers begin to distrust the hider, and managers eventually catch on.
In order to discourage knowledge-hiding behaviour, organizations must build in rewards for sharing knowledge, encourage face-to-face communications and foster trust among their employees, Zweig says.