Companies want employees to share what they know. After all, research has found that this leads to greater creativity, more innovation, and better performance, for individuals, teams, and organizations. Yet despite companies’ attempts to encourage knowledge-sharing (think of those open office spaces ), many employees withhold what they know — a phenomenon known as knowledge hoarding or knowledge hiding. They may play dumb, pretend not to know something, promise to share something but never do it, or tell people they can’t share when in fact they could.
What leads to this parsimonious behavior? Our research, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, found that the way jobs are designed can affect whether employees share or hide knowledge from their colleagues. Specifically, 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.
We obtained these findings from two studies, collecting data from samples of 394 knowledge workers in various organizations in Australia and 195 knowledge workers at a publishing company in China. We surveyed participants about how cognitively demanding their work was, how much autonomy they had, and how much their colleagues relied on them to do their jobs. We also asked about their motivation to share knowledge with others. A few months later, we asked them to report on how frequently they shared knowledge with colleagues and how useful they thought that knowledge had been. We also asked them how frequently they withheld knowledge from their colleagues.
Our analyses yielded three key findings: First, people share and hide knowledge for different reasons. Second, as we stated above, they are more motivated to [More]