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Playing dumb with your colleagues isn’t smart

New research by UTSC Professor David Zweig reveals there are important differences in the type of knowledge hiding behaviours that exist within organizations. (Photo by Ken Jones)

A new University of Toronto Scarborough study suggests that when it comes to hiding knowledge from your colleagues, not all behaviour can be considered negative. In fact, some types of knowledge hiding may actually improve co-worker relationships and break the cycle that occurs often within organizations. 

The research, co-authored by David Zweig, Chair of UTSC’s Department of Management and Professor at the Rotman School of Management, and Catherine Connelly from the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, reveals that while different types of knowledge hiding behaviour exists there are important differences in the way both perpetrators and targets interpret the behavior. 

“Our previous research uncovered this phenomenon known as knowledge hiding and we demonstrated its negative effects in organizations. Now we know knowledge hiding behaviours can lead to different outcomes and it isn’t always negative.”

Across two studies the perspective of both those who hide knowledge (perpetrators) and the knowledge hiding victims (targets) were explored. Three different types of this behaviour were explored including being evasive, rationalized hiding (such as saying a report is confidential) and playing dumb.

Both evasive hiding and playing dumb was found to have a more negative impact on co-worker relationships, while evasive hiding is more likely to lead to future retaliation in the form of withholding knowledge. Zweig says it comes down to evasive hiding being a more deceptive type of behaviour and a form of rejection, which in turn motivates the target to retaliate.  Evasive knowledge hiders also understood their behaviour would negatively impact their relationship with their colleague and anticipated retaliation, but chose to do it regardless.

Targets of knowledge hiding do not always view the behavior as harmful or requiring retaliation, and the behavior isn’t always considered equally harmful. For instance, targets of rationalized hiding react more positively and reported improved relationships with the perpetrators. They were less likely to retaliate and thus perpetrate the behavior in the organization..

“This type of behaviour may actually enhance the relationship between colleagues and break the cycle of knowledge hiding in organizations.”

It begs the questions, why hide knowledge in the first place?

“Members of an organization are competing for finite resources, whether it’s a promotion or to gain greater influence within their organization,” says Zweig.  “Employees are supposed to be working as a team but there are strong incentives to hide knowledge because knowledge gives power.”

The research is available online and will be published in the upcoming edition of the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.

© University of Toronto Scarborough