When Employees Hide Their Expertise

Executive Performance and Development Advisory
Date published

Promoting knowledge sharing has moved to the top of the agenda for many organizations. However, some individuals intentionally try to conceal their expertise, a phenomenon known as knowledge hiding.

How can organizations discourage knowledge hiding among their employees?

Three Types of Knowledge Hiding

There are three types of knowledge hiding, according to Zhao, Liu, and Yu (2019). The first is playing dumb: pretending not to understand requests for knowledge. The second is providing incorrect information or delaying the transfer of knowledge. The third is rationalizing reasons for knowledge hiding, either by providing justifications or blaming others. This type of knowledge hiding isn't necessarily negative: it may involve the use of discretion or the protection of confidentiality.

What causes knowledge hiding?

What factors predict knowledge hiding in organizations? Unsurprisingly, relationships between coworkers have been shown to be the greatest predictors of knowledge hiding (Connelly, Zweig, Webster, & Trougakos, 2012). Indeed, for knowledge hiding, the most influential relationship of all is between an individual and their supervisor (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995).

The stronger the supervisor relationship, the less likely an individual is to participate in knowledge hiding

The impactful role of the supervisor

Why does the supervisor relationship have such an impact on knowledge hiding? Individuals tend to generalize the behaviors of their supervisor to their organization as a whole (Zhang & Chen, 2013). This means that an employee's relationship with their supervisor influences their attitude towards the organization and their motivation to share knowledge. Furthermore, these attitudes influence the degree to which individuals identify with their organization. Organizational identification refers to an individual’s sense of belonging within an organization (Loi, Chen, & Lam, 2014). Thus, supervisor relationships influence attitudes towards the organization as a whole, as well as organizational identification.

What aspects of supervisor relationships encourage knowledge sharing as opposed to knowledge hiding? Two aspects stand out: the quality of the supervisor relationship, and how it compares to other supervisor relationships in the organization. Graen & Uhl-Bien (1995) suggest that employees compare the supervisor relationships of their coworkers to understand the quality of their own supervisor relationship. Therefore, the quality of a supervisor relationship, particularly in comparison to others, encourages knowledge sharing.

What is the evidence for the impact of supervisor relationships on knowledge hiding? Zhao et al. (2019) found that the stronger the supervisor relationship, the less likely the individual is to participate in knowledge hiding. Interestingly, this was true for playing dumb and providing incorrect or delayed information, but not for rationalizing knowledge hiding. The latter often reflects the organization’s interests: hiding knowledge from others protects the confidentiality of the organization and its members (Zhao et al., 2019). Consequently, researchers expected to find that a stronger supervisor relationship would increase rationalizing knowledge hiding. In fact, they found no significant relationship between supervisor relationship and rationalizing knowledge hiding. Why? Zhao et al. (2019) suggest that the motivations for rationalizing knowledge hiding are related to ethics, and further research is necessary to explore individuals’ moral identification with their organization.

Key Takeaways

What can we take away from the latest research on knowledge hiding? First, supervisor relationships are key to discouraging knowledge hiding behaviors. Second, employees compare, so supervisor relationships need to be at a high quality across the organization. Finally, supervisor relationships have knock-on benefits for the organization, even beyond knowledge sharing. They promote a sense of belonging within the organization, and identification with its goals and mission. In sum, knowledge hiding is an unseen danger to creativity and innovation within an organization, but can be addressed by focusing on the importance of the supervisor relationship.

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