No More Hoarders – Getting Employees to Share Knowledge

How do you get employees to share knowledge?   There are few businesses that don’t struggle with this issue even though most research overwhelming supports that sharing knowledge is one of the best paths to increasing productivity, improving creativity, and overall performance.   So what fuels the knowledge hoarder?

What drives this type of behavior?   It’s the employee who plays dumb when asked a question or the person who’s quick to say they’re going to share info, but never seem to get around to it.  Even if you haven’t witnessed this in your own business, you have probably experienced it in interactions with a vendor or customer.  It isn’t all that uncommon, but what drives it may surprise you.   

There was an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review last week addressing this topic.  HBR’s articles often have research to support their content so it’s more than one person’s opinion.  The research concluded that different types of jobs did have an influence on the likelihood of having knowledge hoarders in the business.  But specifically, they uncovered three main ideas around what fuels it. 

  1. People share and hide knowledge for different reasons.
  2. They are most motivated to share knowledge when they work in cognitively demanding jobs with a lot of autonomy.
  3. They are more likely to hide knowledge if they think their colleagues rely on them too much.

The responses from their study were separated into two categories. Autonomous Motivation (AM) and Controlled Motivation (CM).   AM was conducive to sharing knowledge and CM was not.  AM tasks were viewed as “meaningful and enjoyable”.   CM tasks were viewed as tasks “for a reward or to avoid punishment”.  AM employees would agree with statements like “It was important to share information with co-workers” or “It’s fun to talk about things I know”.  CM employees we’re more likely to say “They didn’t want to be criticized” or “I could lose my job if I shared something”.     

The gist of the AM vs. CM categories aligns with many of the models we often reference in Leadership styles.   The more you pressure someone to perform a certain way the less likely they are to respond favorably.   However, when they are able to perceive themselves and their role in the company as someone adding value they respond more favorably.   

When they feel they contribute to the solution they are more likely to respond favorably.  

This is where companies can sometimes get themselves in trouble with bonus and incentive programs.  These programs can and do produce pressure so you could argue they are “Controlled Motivation”, especially if they are specific to a single person or department.  But when companies structure overreaching programs that benefit the entire business or possibly beyond the business  (IE: % of profits to an employee selected charity) the “Autonomous Motivation” kicks in and employees want to share their knowledge.

The results of the data also suggest that the more employees understand how each of their roles have an impact that reaches beyond the four walls of their cubicle, office, or work area; the more likely they are to share knowledge.  Furthermore, anytime an employee is dependent on someone else in the business to complete a task, they tend to be more willing to share knowledge not only with that person, but others in the business as well.   

Ironically, their research also suggested that when an employee felt too depended on, they started to feel pressured into sharing knowledge thus becoming more Controlled vs Autonomous.  And the more “Controlled” they feel, the less likely they are to willingly share knowledge.   One way to counter this in a small business or department would be getting systems and procedures documented for all employees so the employee feeling pressured to share knowledge would know there was at least one other place to go for the answers, even if it was a document.

For any business to grow, effectively sharing knowledge must be part of the strategy for growth.   The secret appears to be designing a communication model that encourages open discussion not only inside departments but across divisions and beyond.

What about your business?  Do you have any knowledge hoarders?  How have you dealt with it?   How would your team members describe you, someone who shares or hoards knowledge?  Are you sure?   As always we value your comments in the space below

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach