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 share when they work in a cognitively demanding job and have a lot of autonomy. Third, they are more likely to hide knowledge if they think colleagues rely on them too much.
Let’s walk through each of these.
What motivates people to share or hide knowledge? When we analyzed the data on what motivates participants to share or hide knowledge, we categorized their responses as being either “autonomous motivation” (which means doing something because it is meaningful or enjoyable) or “controlled motivation” (which means doing something to get a reward or avoid a punishment). Our results showed that knowledge sharing is more likely when employees are autonomously motivated (for example, they’d agree with the statements “It’s important to share what I know with colleagues” or “It’s fun to talk about things I know”). In contrast, people are more likely to hide their knowledge when their motivation is driven by external pressures (“I don’t want to be criticized” or “I could lose my job”).
This means that pressuring people to share knowledge rather than making them see the value of it doesn’t work very well. If workers do not understand the importance of sharing knowledge to reach unit or organizational goals, they will be less likely to share that knowledge. And if workers are pressured into sharing what they know, it could backfire. If they’re afraid of losing a competitive advantage, they may be even more reluctant to reveal information. Interestingly, in the Chinese sample, controlled motivation was associated with increased frequency of knowledge sharing but not with greater usefulness of what was shared.
What type of job leads to sharing or hiding knowledge? Because cognitively demanding work can be more interesting and stimulating, and also more difficult and challenging, we expected that people would both enjoy sharing information more and see a greater need to share. Similarly, because having more autonomy in one’s work leads to finding it more meaningful, we’d expect to see the same propensity for sharing. Our results supported these ideas. When people’s jobs involved high cognitive demands and autonomy, they shared useful knowledge more frequently. This was the case in both the Australian and Chinese knowledge workers.
What happens when people depend on you? Knowledge work relies heavily on both tangible and intangible knowledge (for example, data and know-how) that are held by various people in an organization, which can create interdependencies between employees. So one person might need information from various parties to be able to complete their work effectively. If you rely on your colleagues’ knowledge to get your work done, that might make you more likely to reciprocate by sharing your knowledge with them.
In addition to asking respondents about how they share and hide knowledge from their colleagues, we asked them if their colleagues depended on them to get their work done. We expected that if respondents perceived their colleagues to be dependent on them, they would be more willing to share knowledge and less likely to hide it.
Much to our surprise, we found the opposite. When people perceived that others depended on them, they felt pressured into sharing knowledge (the controlled type of motivation), and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding. This could be because frequent requests from colleagues created more demands on their time — quite a rare commodity these days. People often chose to prioritize their own tasks over sharing knowledge and even pretended not to have the information being requested.
As with all research, our study has limitations. First, we did not consider the nature of the knowledge shared by the research participants. One could argue that if employees enjoyed sharing their knowledge (autonomous motivation), this might result in their sharing more tacit knowledge (that insider know-how that is harder to record and transfer) rather than explicit knowledge (more clear-cut textbook information). Second, our data was limited to self-reports from employees. It would be good if future research could gather additional data, such as reports from colleagues on what is shared with them, how useful it is, when it is refused, and why.
Effective knowledge sharing is essential for all organizations, yet many struggle to get employees on board. Our results suggest that if managers want to encourage more sharing, they need to design work so that people want to discuss what they know.