Open communication and transparency are perhaps the two most valuable characteristics of a successful work environment. According to a recent report, firms with a high-trust environment, where employees can collaboratively and transparently share knowledge, gain stock returns two to three times higher than the industry average and have 50% lower turnover rates than competitors. An ineffective knowledge sharing culture, on the other hand, can cost large U.S. firms up to $47 million in lost productivity annually.
Still, not every employee wants to participate in a knowledge sharing culture. A recent survey suggests that 60% of employees have had a difficult time getting their colleagues to share information that is vital to their work. When we deliberately withhold or conceal information from each other, we are doing something called “knowledge hiding,” an action that can take several different forms. We may pretend to be uninformed, provide inaccurate information to those who ask us, promise to share information but never intend to, or find excuses to tell people that we can’t share when we actually can.
Why do so many of us hide knowledge? Research suggests it could be because we fear losing power or the status that is achieved through knowing unique information. Other reasons include: identifying knowledge as our own property, worrying we will be judged based on what we know, or disliking or distrusting those who ask us. Basically, we hide knowledge because we fear the potential costs of sharing it. If those costs are personal, we may even withhold knowledge to protect ourselves and expect to gain, or maintain, an advantage by doing so. But whether or not we succeed has been questionable, up until recently.
Through our research, my colleagues and I aimed to answer the question: Does knowledge hiding really protect and benefit those of us who hide it?
We conducted three studies, and according to our findings, the answer is no.
In our first study, we surveyed 214 fulltime Chinese employees in various occupational roles — including R&D, management, accounting, sales, and human resources — using an online questionnaire. We provided them with a list of 12 different knowledge hiding behaviors, including offering inaccurate information, pretending to not know what others are talking about, and directly refusing to share. Then we asked the workers to what extent they engaged in each behavior on a seven-point scale, with seven indicating the highest engagement and one indicating the lowest.
In addition, respondents rated the level of psychological safety they felt at work. This rating was based on whether their work environment felt threatening, whether they felt safe being themselves, and whether they felt comfortable engaging in social interactions.
Finally, respondents reported to what extent they were thriving in their roles, defined as learning new things and being vital and energetic.
What we found is that those who engage in knowledge hiding are about 17% less likely to thrive at work, or experience learning and growth. We believe this is because hiding knowledge from peers does not actually result in a competitive advantage. Rather, it makes employees feel psychologically unsafe. As prior research suggests, without psychological safety, it can be difficult for employees to focus on tasks, develop meaningful relationships, and explore new ways of working without fear of punishment for mistakes or failures. In these situations, employees often struggle to maintain a positive attitude and engage in learning opportunities.
The results of our first study pushed us to explore the topic further. We wanted to know if the backfire effects of knowledge hiding occur in work cultures outside of China as well.
We conducted a second study in which we surveyed 392 fulltime workers, mainly from Europe and North America, employed in a variety of fields, including education, retail, hospitality, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, and others. To further explore the impacts of psychological safety on knowledge hiding, we refined the study design and asked participants to answer two online questionnaires, two weeks apart. In the first, they reported knowledge hiding behaviors and levels of psychological safety at work just as the participants had in our original study. Then, two weeks later they reported these same variables again and indicated how thriving they were.
We found that employees who engaged in knowledge hiding felt less psychological safety at work two weeks later. However, those who felt psychologically unsafe to begin with did not increase knowledge hiding behaviors. We concluded that a psychologically unsafe work environment does not lead people to knowledge hiding, nor does a psychologically safe work environment prevent people from knowledge hiding. However, knowledge hiding does make people feel more psychologically unsafe at work, and as a result, those people will be less likely to thrive.
To consolidate this information, we conducted a third study, surveying 205 employees from three Chinese organizations in the airline, postal, and education industries. The goal of this study was to explore whether knowledge hiders suffer more when they have a cynical attitude about their organization. We were curious if cynicism and knowledge hiding interact in any way to influence employees’ psychological safety and thriving. As in the second study, two surveys were collected within a time interval of two weeks. However, this time, five items were added to the first survey to test how employees felt about their work environments. We asked respondents to what degree they agreed with statements like, “It is hard to be hopeful about the future because people in my organization have such bad attitudes” and “I’ve pretty much given up trying to make suggestions for improvements in my organization”. The second survey only asked questions about thriving.
We concluded that, in general, knowledge hiders suffer as a result of what we found in the first two studies. But we also found a caveat. Knowledge hiding was more likely to backfire when the perpetrator was cynical about their organization. When respondents who knowledge hid were also cynical toward their organizations (e.g., those who felt the organization lacked honesty, fairness, integrity, or saw serious, unresolvable problems at their companies), had a stronger perception of unsafety, and consequently, had difficult time thriving. By contrast, knowledge hiders who were not cynical toward their organizations, did not feel as unsafe after withholding information. Rather, it was easier for them to figure out ways to thrive regardless. Note, however, that our findings do not indicate that low cynicism prevents people from hiding knowledge in the first place.
What can organizations do to stop knowledge hiding?
We now know that knowledge hiding is much more harmful when those who hide knowledge have a negative attitude toward their organization as opposed to a positive one. One solution, then, is for companies to work towards developing cultures in which their employees feel comfortable speaking openly about their concerns. If you can address the problems that are making your workers feel cynical, you can start to gain back their trust and help alleviate some of that cynicism.
I recommend that organizations use third party, anonymous surveys to figure out if and why their staff holds cynical attitudes. This feedback can be used to design and implement targeted practices that will ensure the workplace is fair, trustworthy, and hopeful. Companies should also invest in teaching managers how to recognize signs of employees who may be struggling and initiate difficult conversations about why.
Lastly, there is value in educating your people on the consequences of knowledge hiding. Those who are keeping information in order to protect themselves may not understand that they are actually doing the opposite. Use trainings, newsletters, bulletin boards, and other communication channels to spread this information.
Making these changes won’t be easy. Knowledge hiding is widely prevalent in the workplace, and it will take time to fix. But be patient. The first step is to acknowledge this reality, and share what you’ve learned with others so that we can make the changes necessary to improve the problem together.
Zhou (Joe) Jiang is an Associate Professor in College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University, Australia. His research interests include career management, knowledge exchange, workplace thriving, and wellbeing.