'Knowledge hiding' makes employees feel psychologically unsafe

Engaging in this behaviour doesn’t lead to competitive advantage: research

'Knowledge hiding' makes employees feel psychologically unsafe
Workers who engage in knowledge hiding are about 17 per cent less likely to thrive at work, or experience learning and growth, says a study Shutterstock

Knowledge hiding in the workplace can make employees feel psychologically unsafe and prevent them from thriving at work, according to research by the Harvard Business Review, based on three separate studies.


First, they surveyed 14 full-time Chinese employees with roles in R&D, management, accounting, sales and human resources using an online questionnaire listing 12 different knowledge-hiding behaviours, including “offering inaccurate information,” “pretending to not know what others are talking about” and “directly refusing to share.”

The workers were asked to what extent they engaged in each behaviour on a seven-point scale.

In addition, respondents rated the level of psychological safety they felt at work, based on whether their work environment felt threatening, whether they felt safe being themselves, and whether they felt comfortable engaging in social interactions. Respondents were also asked to what extent they were “thriving” in their roles.

“Those who engage in knowledge hiding are about 17 per cent less likely to thrive at work, or experience learning and growth. We believe this is because hiding knowledge from peers does not actually result in a competitive advantage. Rather, it makes employees feel psychologically unsafe,” says author Zhou Jiang, n Associate Professor in College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University, Australia. 


The second survey involved 392 full-time workers from Europe and North America in the fields of education, retail, hospitality, health care, manufacturing and transportation, among others, giving them two separate sets of questionnaires two weeks apart.


In the first, they reported knowledge hiding behaviours and levels of psychological safety at work like the other participants. Then, two weeks later they reported these same variables again and indicated how thriving they were.


“We found that employees who engaged in knowledge hiding felt less psychological safety at work two weeks later. However, those who felt psychologically unsafe to begin with did not increase knowledge hiding behaviours. We concluded that a psychologically unsafe work environment does not lead people to knowledge hiding, nor does a psychologically safe work environment prevent people from knowledge hiding. However, knowledge hiding does make people feel more psychologically unsafe at work, and as a result, those people will be less likely to thrive,” says Jiang.


The researchers conducted a third study, this time trying to explore whether knowledge hiders suffer more when they have a cynical attitude about their organization. The survey involved 205 employees from three Chinese organizations in the airline, postal and education industries. 


They once again issued two questionnaires two weeks apart, this time adding five items to test how employees felt about their work environments by asking them to what degree they agreed with statements like “It is hard to be hopeful about the future because people in my organization have such bad attitudes” and “I’ve pretty much given up trying to make suggestions for improvements in my organization.” The second survey only asked questions about thriving.


“In general, knowledge hiders suffer as a result of what we found in the first two studies. But we also found a caveat. Knowledge hiding was more likely to backfire when the perpetrator was cynical about their organization,” says Jiang.


Jiang and her group found that employees who hide knowledge and, at the same time, have cynical thoughts about their company “had a stronger perception of unsafety and, consequently, had difficult time thriving.”

Knowledge hiders who were not cynical, however, “did not feel as unsafe after withholding information. Rather, it was easier for them to figure out ways to thrive regardless.”

They also say that their “findings do not indicate that low cynicism prevents people from hiding knowledge in the first place.”



One solution is for companies to develop cultures that make “employees feel comfortable speaking openly about their concerns,” says Jiang, adding that organizations can also use third-party, anonymous surveys to identify if and why employees hold cynical attitudes.


“This feedback can be used to design and implement targeted practices that will ensure the workplace is fair, trustworthy, and hopeful. Companies should also invest in teaching managers how to recognize signs of employees who may be struggling and initiate difficult conversations about why.”


Employee education on knowledge hiding through the use of trainings, newsletters, bulletin boards and other communication channels to spread information may also be helpful, says Jiang.


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