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When Employees Hide Their Expertise

How can organisations discourage knowledge hiding?

Promoting knowledge sharing has moved to the top of the agenda for many organisations. However, some individuals intentionally try to conceal their expertise, a phenomenon known as knowledge hiding. How can organisations discourage knowledge hiding among their employees?

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 rationalising 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? 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).

Why does the supervisor relationship have such an impact on knowledge hiding? Individuals tend to generalise the behaviours of their supervisor to their organisation as a whole (Zhang & Chen, 2013). This means that an employee's relationship with their supervisor influences their attitude towards the organisation and their motivation to share knowledge. Furthermore, these attitudes influence the degree to which individuals identify with their organisation. Organisational identification refers to an individual’s sense of belonging within an organisation (Loi, Chen, & Lam, 2014). Thus, supervisor relationships influence attitudes towards the organisation as a whole, as well as organisational 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 organisation. 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 rationalising knowledge hiding. The latter often reflects the organisation’s interests: hiding knowledge from others protects the confidentiality of the organisation and its members (Zhao et al., 2019). Consequently, researchers expected to find that a stronger supervisor relationship would increase rationalising knowledge hiding. In fact, they found no significant relationship between supervisor relationship and rationalising knowledge hiding. Why? Zhao et al. (2019) suggest that the motivations for rationalising knowledge hiding are related to ethics, and further research is necessary to explore individuals’ moral identification with their organisation.

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

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