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Hide knowledge from co-workers? It just doesn't pay, study finds

March 4, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

It's mastery climate vs. performance climate, with creativity in the balance

How to respond to a co-worker's request for information or knowledge? Although knowledge-sharing is widely thought to enhance the creativity of companies, several surveys and studies have found there to be a significant amount of knowledge-hiding on the job. After all, isn't it natural to balk at sharing an insight or idea with a colleague if it may help him, instead of you, get a promotion?

But new research finds that, notwithstanding the possibility of occasional gains from knowledge-hiding, it is, in general, a no-win proposition.

In the words of a paper in the current Academy of Management Journal, workers "should reconsider and be careful about hiding knowledge from their co-workers because...what goes around comes around. More specifically, employees who intentionally hide more knowledge seem bound to receive such selfish behavior in return from their co-workers, which will ultimately hurt them and decrease their creativity. This could also be described using the metaphor of 'shooting yourself in the foot.' "

Adds one of the paper's authors, Matej Cerne of Ljubljana University in Slovenia, "In workplaces that have what we call a performance climate, where employees are encouraged to compete with each other in the belief that this enhances performance, workers will certainly have an incentive to hide knowledge. But they're not likely to gain from it, because in the tit-for-tat culture that prevails in such settings co-workers will respond in kind and the culprit's standing with the boss will probably suffer.

"In contrast, knowledge-hiders can probably count on forbearance in companies with what we call a mastery climate, where the emphasis is on cooperation and learning. But, given the lack of emphasis on individual rewards in such settings, there is little incentive to hide knowledge.

"In short, it's a no-win option either way -- incentive with retaliation or forbearance without incentive."

Joining with Prof. Cerne as co-authors of the paper are Christina G. I. Nerstad , Anders Dysvik, and Miha Skerlavaj of the BI Norwegian Business School.

The researchers' findings emerge from two studies -- one a field study involving 240 workers and their 34 group supervisors at two companies in the metal industry and the second a behavioral experiment with 132 university undergraduates.

In the field study, surveys were conducted of middle-level employees who are more likely than production workers to be looked to for creative ideas. Workers were asked to respond to statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) on two principal subjects -- 

1) knowledge hiding: whether there were episodes in which a co-worker requested knowledge and the worker, for example, "pretended not to know what s/he was talking about" or "promised to help later but stalled as much as possible." The mean response was 1.94.

2) perceived motivational climate: whether employees perceived their work situations as a mastery climate (for example, "cooperation and mutual exchange of knowledge are encouraged," and "one of the goals is to make each individual feel that he/she has an important role in the work process") or a performance climate (for example, "there exists a competitive rivalry among the employees" and "an individual's accomplishments are compared with those of other colleagues.").

Meanwhile, supervisors were asked to rate the creativity of individual members of their groups (which averaged seven workers) by agreeing or disagreeing on a scale of 1 to 7 with such statements as "He/she is not afraid to take risks" and "he/she is a good source of creative ideas." The mean rating was 5.34.

The research revealed that in a high-mastery climate there was little difference in ratings workers received for creativity from their supervisors whether or not they engaged in knowledge-hiding. But in a high-performance climate, knowledge-hiding was negatively related to those ratings, meaning that the more knowledge-hiding workers admitted to on the survey, the less creative their supervisors considered them to be. The likelihood these findings were due to chance was less than five percent for the first and less than 10 percent for the second.

To elucidate the cause of these findings, Prof. Cerne and his colleagues carried out an experiment in which pairs of students were assigned to collaborate in a half-hour creative marketing exercise. In simulation of a mastery climate, one third of the pairs were "encouraged to cooperate and exchange thoughts and ideas"; a second group, in simulation of a performance climate, was instructed to "keep in mind that your colleagues are actually your competitive rivals [including] your teammate in the dyad"; and a third group, serving as a control, was provided no inducement regarding motivational climate. In addition, within each group half the participants were covertly instructed to "hide your knowledge and information."

Participants' answers to questionnaires revealed that knowledge-hiding by one partner fosters distrust in the other partner among the pairs in a performance climate but not those in the mastery climate or in the control groups. And a partner's distrust, in turn, has a negative effect on creativity of knowledge-hiders, as assessed by two experts who were asked to judge the quality of participants' marketing ideas. This leads the authors to conclude that "when a co-worker is denied knowledge needed in order to be creative, in turn this same person is likely to reciprocate knowledge hiding [and thereby] impede the knowledge hider's creativity."

Another finding is that knowledge-hiding activates prevention focus, a concern with self-protection that research has found to be anti-creative, since creativity is risky and holds the potential of negative outcomes. Prevention focus, like mutual distrust, contributes to low creativity, with both effects exacerbated by a performance climate.

At the same time, a mastery climate "buffers the detrimental effect of knowledge-hiding" and is therefore "a suitable work environment for stimulating creative behaviors." In contrast, "a performance climate (i.e., emphasizing competition and goal achievement at any cost)...should be avoided, as this negatively impacts creativity. This serves as a powerful explanation for the potential failures of creativity-enhancement initiatives based on competition instead of collaboration."

The paper, "What Goes Around Comes Around: Knowledge-Hiding,Perceived Motivational Climate and Creativity," is in the February/March issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education, and Academy of Management Annals  .A sixth publication, Academy of Management Discoveries,  is currently accepting submissions and will begin publishing in January 2015.

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