Workplace: A culture of mistrust leads to knowledge-hiding


By AGENCY

Knowledge-hiding can have many causes. Many are simply afraid of losing their expert status if they explain their methodology to others. Photo: dpa

Without the help of colleagues, it's often not possible to proceed with a task or project. When a team member blocks or claims not to know the answer to something, this is known as knowledge-hiding, the conscious withholding of knowledge that another person is asking for.

"Many people haven't heard of the term, but when I explain it, they all say, 'Yes, I've experienced that or done it myself'," says Florian Offergelt, assistant professor of leadership and organisational knowledge management at Austria's Seeburg Castle University.

Various aspects

A distinction is made between different forms of knowledge-hiding. When someone pretends not to have any answers, this is called "playing dumb", says Offergelt. A second form is "evasive knowledge-hiding".

The third form is "rationalised hiding" of information that is not allowed to be passed on. Knowledge-hiding is therefore not always malicious. When it comes to salary information or patient data, you may well be required to keep the information to yourself.

Another reason: Some people are afraid of losing their expert status, says Offergelt.

"They don't want to make themselves replaceable by sharing knowledge. Some people develop a real sense of ownership of 'their' knowledge, which is known as territoriality."There can actually be personal advantages to not sharing information, says Laura Venz, professor of industrial and organisational psychology at Leuphana University of Luneburg, Germany.

"If I work in a team with a dog-eat-dog mentality and I know that only one person can be promoted, I might be more inclined to keep things to myself."When workload and time pressure are very high, there sometimes isn't enough time and energy to answer questions.

"Even if I would like to help, I may not have enough capacity to do so."

Chain reaction

Other triggers for knowledge-hiding are social – for example, hostility between colleagues. Perhaps someone wants to get back at someone who has kept knowledge to themselves. In this way, a chain reaction of jealous behaviour and a climate of mistrust can develop, says economist Sebastian Mangold.

Hiding knowledge can have significant financial implications, explains Offergelt.

"There are projections that say that the 500 companies with the highest turnover in the US alone incur up to US$30bil (RM137bil) in opportunity costs every year due to knowledge not being shared."These lost profits occur, for example, because trends are missed or employees exhibit reduced work performance.

"People who are victims of knowledge-hiding, or who engage in it themselves, have lower job satisfaction, are less creative and are more likely to quit."But addressing knowledge-hiding directly is often not that easy, says Venz. How do you know if a colleague really is intentionally withholding knowledge? Nevertheless, openly addressing your own perceptions is generally the best strategy. Don't make generalisations ("always", "never") or accusations, says Venz.

Those who notice tendencies towards knowledge-hiding in themselves should first ask why. If I would actually like to share knowledge, but I lack time and energy, it's important to communicate that. You could try saying, "It's not possible right now, can we set up a meeting?"

Role model function

Often, however, the reasons lie at organisational level.

"A cultural change is needed," says Venz.

She recommends starting with promotions and distribution of power.

"If someone always ends up in first and last place, it fuels competition and knowledge-hiding."Instead, co-workers who share knowledge and work together should be promoted. Another point is the workload.

"The necessary resources must be available so that knowledge can be shared."The role model function of the manager also plays an important role, says Offergelt. By sending out the signal that knowledge-hiding is not only tolerated but even desired, employees will follow suit. – dpa/Inga Dreyer

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