What’s Behind Employee Knowledge Hoarding And How To Fix It

I’ve observed a growing problem in today’s workplace where employees hide, hoard or simply don’t provide information to others in their organization. It’s disruptive and contributes substantially to the lack of productivity. Although employers have tried multiple solutions to the problem — meetings, team building, knowledge management systems — the issue remains largely unresolved.

Human beings are a complicated bunch, and, as it turns out, there are multiple reasons that can cause this breakdown in the flow of information from person to person, level to level or team to team. The fix depends largely on determining which specific issues are driving the behavior in each particular instance.

Individual Motivations

Individual motivations at work may be something as simple as the lack of time to communicate the information to the requestor. For example, if a certain colleague is constantly requesting information, it can be a serious drain on the time of the employee who is being asked. Frustration ensues, and the thought becomes, “If Dave in accounting doesn’t know how to do his job, why should I keep helping him at the risk of my own productivity stats?” On the other hand, an employee may hoard information for personal gain or power. Clarice in sales may have decided that if she doesn’t share her hard-earned knowledge with others on the sales team, she will continue to be the star and the most valuable player, who is immune to layoffs. Neither scenario benefits the organization as a whole. So, what’s the solution?

Authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Why Employees Don’t Share Knowledge with Each Other,” point to their research to help explain why people hide information or share it: “We found that more cognitively complex jobs — in which people need to process large amounts of information and solve complex problems — tended to promote more knowledge sharing, as did jobs offering more autonomy. By focusing on these aspects of work, managers can encourage employees to share more and hide less.”

A Lack Of Trust

Trust can also be a contributing factor as to why employees withhold information. To combat this, management may need to actively recognize and reward the contributions of those who exhibit the desired behavior. They also need to work to eliminate the various barriers at their company that are restricting the free flow of information. It might be that different members of a team are in very different time zones and find it difficult to communicate in a meaningful way. Or it could be that there’s a deep-seated rivalry between teams that are, in theory, supposed to be cooperating instead of competing.

In the book The 7 Fundamentals to Create and Sustain A Successful Knowledge Sharing Organization, author Patricia Pedraza-Nafziger says, “To encourage employees to share the knowledge gained through experience requires building trust and an understanding of how their knowledge will be used.” Be upfront and honest with employees. Explain the benefits of knowledge sharing, and remind everyone of shared goals.

Organizational Hierarchy

Another interesting study, “Helping Others Most When They Are Not Too Close: Status Distance as a Determinant of Interpersonal Helping in Organizations,” found that people in an organization were more likely to provide information if there was moderate distance between their positions on the organizational chart.

As the study’s abstract explains, “Scholars examining interpersonal relations in organizations have long known that status matters, but findings regarding the link between status differences and prosocial behavior have been equivocal.” In other words, you’re more likely to share information with individuals who are moderately distant from you in status because the feelings of potential competition or power status are diminished.

In my experience, one of the best ways to combat the employee knowledge hoarding tendency is to reward employees who participate in the consistent sharing of appropriate information and make clear the benefits of doing so. Management also needs to be responsive to recognizing those employees who are draining the productivity of others by requesting information that they should already know. It should be addressed by more training or perhaps a performance improvement plan.

In the end, it is the role of leadership in the organization to ensure the free flow of important information is actually happening on a day-to-day basis. Effective collaboration can move the needle for your company and improve the bottom line.


This article has previously been featured on Forbes

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