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To Help or Not to Help - Workplace Culture and Knowledge Hiding

Have you ever desperately asked a colleague a work-related question who responded with something along the lines of:

  • “Errr, yeah sure mate, but can we do it later?”
  • “Sorry, I don’t understand your question.”
  • “Ooh, not sure I’m the best person to ask.”

No doubt we can all empathise with the frustration and confusion that follows when a request for knowledge is rejected. Equally, there are also times when you’re so busy, you don’t have time to help a colleague. It turns out that this is a huge phenomenon called knowledge hiding, which is “an intentional attempt by an individual to withhold or conceal knowledge that has been requested by another person”. This is a prevalent topic in organisational psychology, but how does knowledge hiding manifest? What sorts of workplace climates and personal characteristics facilitate it? What strategies can the organisation and individual adopt to combat this issue?

First off, there are 3 forms of knowledge hiding:

  1. Evasive: providing incorrect information or a false promise of helping in the future despite no intention to do so.
  2. Playing dumb: pretending not to understand what the knowledge seeker is talking about.
  3. Rationalised: providing a justification for not giving the requested knowledge either by blaming another party or suggesting that they do not know.

It’s important to distinguish this concept from counterproductive workplace behaviours such as incivility, where the culprit intends to have a detrimental effect, because, as with (3), the hider does not mean to cause harm despite intentionally hiding information. Intentional or not, however, it can lead to monumental losses in companies. In fact, one study showed that knowledge hiding can explain why creativity fails in the workplace. Creativity emerges when different perspectives generate novel combinations of ideas and is therefore dependent on information shared via social interaction. If no-one is sharing their knowledge, that’s a very uninspired workplace.

In terms of characteristics, one trait which renders the behaviour more likely is negative reciprocity – the tendency to retaliate with a negative action upon receiving negative treatment. The other is moral disengagement, where an individual does not believe that ethical standards apply to his/her behaviour through things like shirking responsibility and playing down harmful consequences. But one’s environment can also facilitate knowledge hiding, for example, time pressure is a huge contributor. If colleagues feel that they do not have time to finish their own tasks, they will be far less willing to help others. In addition, the overarching work climate can have a big influence; for example, do you work in an organisation which prioritises performance and encourages competition between you and your colleagues? Or, are cooperation and mutual support placed above everything else? If you chose the first option, helping colleagues is going to be far less likely because social comparison is more emphasised than in a place where a collectivist mindset is fostered. 

So, what’s the best way to overcome the issues raised by knowledge hiding? Researchers have suggested that management try the following:

  1. Create a shared identity based on trust, e.g. highlight instances where employees have been trustworthy, and be a role model by sharing your knowledge with others.
  2. Move away from a competitive culture to a cooperative culture, e.g. avoid labelling employees as winners or losers, and steer clear of providing incentives for employees to betray their colleagues.
  3. Increase opportunities for job sharing, e.g. try not to create too many dependencies on people, give employees as much autonomy as possible, and regularly check with individuals that they are not overloaded.
  4. During interviews, conduct scenario simulations or questionnaires to measure candidates’ levels of moral disengagement and negative reciprocity.

And for employees, they provide a brilliant, actionable tip: If you sense that a colleague is reluctant to help you for time purposes, rather than flatter them by playing down how little you know, instead  emphasise how quickly it can be transmitted by showing exactly what you know already. For example: “I can see that the guidelines have changed. Can I check if the change to section 3 is the only one that applies to us?” Your colleague will feel more confident that they can assist quickly than if you said: “I’ve got no idea what these changes mean. You’re a pro, can you help?” Knowledge hiding 101 complete.