I was unfamiliar with the term “knowledge hiding,” but very well acquainted with the phenomenon itself: intentionally withholding information from co-workers.
Considering this practice in an organizational context, and how it erodes relationships, environment and performance, I must admit I’ve seen this time and time again.
Hiding information, in my experience, is surprisingly routine – even if it is to the detriment of the company. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise at all, as withholding is often a matter of misguided self-interest. And aren’t we all trying to hold our own when it comes to keeping our jobs and excelling in our performance?
Hiding Critical Information
I have been aware of knowledge hiding maneuvers throughout my career. Most often I noticed this tendency in a co-worker, and occasionally a manager. The environment was typically one in which there was uncertainty (job insecurity), or a culture that pits one person against another, rather than focusing on team or organizational results.
How does knowledge hiding actually work?
Flavors of this manipulative behavior may include obfuscating, stalling or outright misrepresentation. This might mean partial answers, repeated delays in responses, or other obstacles placed in the path of productivity.
Addressing this organizational issue, a recent New York Times article points out:
Many people try to rationalize their withholding ways. They may tell themselves that they are thinking of the greater good of the organization, or that they are in danger of losing their jobs if they don’t keep their superior knowledge status intact.
Depending on the significance of the missing or incomplete information, workarounds can be managed. But what remains are annoyance, resentment and of course, eroded team spirit. And that doesn’t take into account the broader negative impacts to the organization itself.
Simply stated, when you find yourself dependent on knowledge hiders for data, deliverables, communication and cooperation – it’s damn difficult to do your job.
Incidentally, my experience has led me to encounter far more fear of job loss as motivation than the “good of the company” when it comes to rationalizing knowledge hiding.
Some might try to characterize these behaviors as workplace politics and leave it at that. But if we think of politics as creating alliances and using them to one’s advantage – preferably for organizational advantage as well – knowledge hiding takes politics into precarious territory.
Not only does it potentially ruin effective relationships (and positive results on the job), the atmosphere feels poisoned when there is a Machiavellian touch that undermines creativity, collaboration and the trust required for both.
Consider the following. Aren’t we slower to arrive at the best possible solutions when we’re missing key information? What about the impact of the resulting delays? What if his or her drive to maintain control overrides all other motivations?
One other consideration: Knowledge hiders are eventually found out. They may retain their jobs, but in the process, they make plenty of enemies.
There are positive manipulations of course – isn’t all good management in part reliant on effective persuasion? – and negative manipulations (like knowledge hiding or misrepresentation). But withholding (information, praise, communication) is typically associated with fear, insecurity, a need for control or a desire to exact punishment.
As for psychological manipulations, unfortunately some people are consummate practitioners in other areas of life, and bring these same habits to the workplace. They enjoy manipulating others, regardless of the outcome.
Yet we might ask ourselves several questions. Are our knowledge withholding colleagues maneuvering others to get what they want, intending no explicit harm? Is this purely a strategy to retain their position? If not sharing information hurts the organization, does it matter what their reasoning may be?
To me, those with a need to have the upper hand are generally operating out of fear or insecurity. In some instances, of course, that fear is well-founded. How many of us think we’re secure in our jobs these days?
Incentives to Work Together
The Times article suggests that an organization that incentivizes both teamwork and individual performance may discourage knowledge hiding. But surely we cannot ignore the influences of our culture at large in which so many live job-scared. Add to that our awareness that loyalty in organizational cultures is, generally speaking, a thing of the past. Is it any wonder that so many act in accordance with the rules of “dog eat dog,” believing that you need to get the other guy – before he gets you?
Withholding knowledge (and cooperation) becomes a tactic for self-preservation.
We can apply this same phenomenon to relationships – spouses who withhold – both affection and information. Of course, those who are withholding in relationships may also be operating out of the same motivations – fear, a desire for control – but the damage is of a more personal nature, extending to denying others support, love, company – which they might reasonably expect.
As for keeping mum on information needed by someone to do their job, we may tell ourselves that keeping silent (or responding with partial omissions) isn’t the same as lying, especially when we’re trying to protect ourselves.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office…
Of course, when you realize that a best friend, a boyfriend or a spouse is capable of knowledge hiding at the office, don’t you start worrying if he applies the same logic in his personal life? Is this one more aspect of psychological manipulation that you may be experiencing, only now coming into focus?
What if you realize your spouse or partner operates not only from a place of withholding information, but utilizing misinformation in his daily dealings? This may make for a nifty plot twist in a spy thriller, but it’s the last thing you want taking place at home.
Likewise, wielding misinformation takes workplace knowledge hiding one step beyond the usual. In our hyper-competitive world, you may view adopting a “whatever it takes” approach as “necessary,” or you may see it as little more than rationalization.
We can debate the ethics of this of course – (I have my standards, you have yours) – and as The Times tells us, protecting one’s professional survival is often the underlying motivator.
The Cost of Knowledge Hiding
Just as withholding harms personal relationships and can eventually destroy them, in the long run, these tactics may well impact organizational performance. Knowledge hiding disorients co-workers and obliterates trust. Distrust can become contagious.
More complex still, when those who use these behaviors in the workplace bring them home. Then the relationship dynamics suffer from the same destabilizing, undermining techniques that are deemed effective in maintaining control at the office. Not only could this include non-disclosure of information or misinformation, but emotional blackmail (eliciting sympathy or using guilt) and crazy-making behaviors (mixed messages, outright denials) – destructive in any environment.
When it comes to dealing with someone who hides information or plays mind games at work, we have choices. We can take distance (leaving the job, transferring or shifting roles), we can carefully document commitments and deliveries (to address the issue with someone in authority), and we can identify alternative means to acquire the information we need.
But the bottom line?
It’s a waste of talent, time and energy.
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