In many organizations, knowledge is power. But for some employees, power comes in hiding their knowledge rather than sharing it. This phenomenon is known as knowledge hiding, and it's more common than you might think. In this article, we'll explore what knowledge hiding is, why it happens, and the impact it can have on employees and businesses.

Knowledge hiding–defined as “the act of deliberately not providing knowledge or providing knowledge that is not what the seeker needs when facing a colleague’s request.” A 2021 study on knowledge hiding in organizations found that “about 50% of employees have the intention to withhold, mislead, or conceal knowledge that has been requested by another person.”

What knowledge hiding is–and isn’t. 

There are several types of knowledge withholding, and knowledge hiding is only one kind. Other types include knowledge hoarding and knowledge non-sharing. Here is an overview of definitions on the different types of knowledge withholding

Knowledge hoarding: “the deliberate concealment of knowledge that is relevant to another but not requested.”

Knowledge hiding: “an attempt by an individual to retain or hide knowledge that has been requested by someone else.”

In short, knowledge hiding is distinctive in that it’s always intentional. It doesn’t occur due to institutional issues such as job autonomy, an inability to physically share the information, not having access to it, or some other external barrier.  

While knowledge hiding might sound malicious—it’s not always negative. For example, supervisors might hide information from employees or commit “white lies” to protect feelings or party interests. That said, knowledge hiding among employees comes at a cost to team performance. 

The costs of knowledge hiding in teams

At its most basic level, knowledge hiding comes with an interpersonal relationship cost. Teams that experience a high degree of knowledge hiding create and sustain negative feedback loops around hiding and withholding information from one another. This can lead to a toxic work environment in which employees act out in retaliatory ways rather than contributing to each other’s progress. 

It also stifles creativity and innovation. A study of 240 employees organized across two companies found that innovative work behavior decreased in the face of knowledge hiding, especially when employees were interdependent on one another to complete their tasks. 

Man hiding knowledge on his laptop from others.

In fact, “those who engage in knowledge hiding are about 17% less likely to thrive at work, or experience learning or growth.”

For employees, knowledge hiding in the long term contributes to an overall negative work environment. The Panopto report on unshared knowledge costs found 81% of employees feeling frustrated when they “cannot access the information they need to do their job.”

Inefficient knowledge sharing costs businesses $$$

Knowledge hiding doesn’t just test employee happiness—it also undercuts company profits. Organizations of 1,000 employees and less reported approximately $2.7 million in annual productivity losses due to insufficient knowledge sharing between employees and teams, with $253,000 of that in onboarding inefficiencies and $2.4 million from day-to-day inefficiencies. 

Those costs increase by almost 400% in companies of 5,000 employees or more. 

Additional findings included:

  • “Delays due to unshared knowledge have a major impact on project schedules. 66% of all such delays will last up to one week, and 12% will last a month or more.”
  • “In companies with higher turnover rates, employees were 65% more likely to state that that it could be ‘very difficult’ or ‘nearly impossible’ to ‘get the information needed to do my job well.’”
  • “While the average new hire receives 2.5 months of formal training, it can take up to 6 months for an employee to actually ramp up in a new role. These employees often struggle for up to 3.5 months learning the details of their job on their own, seeking out information, and inadvertently replicating work.”

Why knowledge hiding occurs

Studies offer a variety of reasons why knowledge hiding occurs, but some of the key ones include:

It interferes with getting work done: sometimes the process of organizing and sharing knowledge with another person can be so demanding that the individual finds it more convenient to not share the knowledge. Studies suggest that employees might see the time spent away from their own work fulfilling a coworker’s knowledge request impacts their own job responsibilities and future goals. 

It’s not rewarded: some work environments promote knowledge hiding between individuals. Consider a work environment in which knowledge hiding indicates a level of status (such as in a supervisory role) or offers a personal advantage (such as new leads a secret in a competitive sales team). 

Sharing it has consequences: an individual might be afraid to share the information because it puts them at personal risk in some way. Consider an employee who is afraid of having her job automated if she hands over all the knowledge she has built up and organized in her role over the years. 

There’s not enough interpersonal trust: if coworkers don’t have a relationship of reciprocity or trust between each other, they are more likely to hide their knowledge from one another. Every time a coworker continues to feed into this negative reciprocity it reinforces a negative feedback loop in which coworkers feel compared to share even less information.

It’s a form of personal justice: in abusive work environments, employees sometimes withhold knowledge as a form of asserting control over their circumstances. Unfortunately, when it comes to abusive supervisors, employees prefer to act out on fellow coworkers, so the risk of retaliation is lower. 

All these individual reasons point back to employees feeling psychologically unsafe. In his article on withholding information at work for the Harvard Business Review, researcher Zhou (Joe) Jiang notes that “without psychological safety, it can be difficult for employees to focus on tasks, develop meaningful relationships, and explore new ways of working without fear of punishment for mistakes or failures. In these situations, employees often struggle to maintain a positive attitude and engage in learning opportunities.”

How leadership contributes to knowledge hiding

Studies around knowledge hiding looked at the effects of abusive and ethical leadership:

As mentioned before, employees tend to react to abusive leadership by engaging in knowledge hiding. While it’s not intended to harm the organization itself, knowledge hiding between employees does have a net negative effect on the work environment, with employees feeling increased workplace cynicism. Additionally, if an employee becomes known for their knowledge hiding (which is often perceived as passive aggressiveness), it can result in their ostracism from their teammates. Forms of this can include bullying, negative gossip, and other actions that drain employee time, energy, and resources. 

Ethical leadership, conversely, tends to drive down knowledge hiding, especially leadership focused around empowering the individual. Ethical leadership is defined as “acting ethically and setting the standard for others to do so as well.

How technology contributes to knowledge hiding

Few studies exist on the direct correlation between workplace technology and its contribution to knowledge hiding, but it’s not hard to guess how technology can be utilized to support such behavior. 

For many companies, a lack of standardized data management can make it much easier for employees to pick and choose what they share with others from their team. Consider a sales person who manages their regional leads in their own way. If there’s no standardized process for uploading and sharing that information to a portal where others can view it, the sales member might only share information that can’t be used by others to contact their clients. This ensures they remain a vital point in the communication process for every engagement, thus preserving their job security.

Employees isolated from each other and knowledge as a result of technology gaps

But these habits don’t lead to workplace happiness. In fact, they produce the opposite. A 40,000 person survey across 300+ companies found that employees considered transparency the number one factor in their happiness, with happiness largely influenced by peer-to-peer relationships. A 2018 Future of Work Study by Slack also found that 87% of employees wanted transparency from companies they work for in the future. 

A lack of technology–or a disjointed technology stack–can contribute to knowledge hiding habits that undermine happiness and employee relationships.

There’s good news

There are several ways that companies can combat knowledge hiding and promote knowledge sharing among employees:

  1. Create a culture of trust and psychological safety: encourage open communication, feedback, and transparency. Employees need to feel safe to share their knowledge and ideas without fear of retribution.
  2. Reward knowledge sharing: develop incentives or recognition programs that reward employees for sharing their knowledge and expertise. This can help reinforce the value of knowledge sharing in the workplace.
  3. Foster collaboration and teamwork: encourage cross-functional collaboration and teamwork to build a sense of shared purpose and accountability. This can help create a culture of interdependence where knowledge sharing is essential for achieving shared goals.
  4. Provide training and development opportunities: offer training and development programs to help employees develop their skills and knowledge. This can help foster a culture of continuous learning and encourage employees to share their knowledge with others.
  5. Use technology to facilitate knowledge sharing: provide employees with access to collaboration tools and knowledge management systems that make it easy to share information and expertise. This can help break down barriers to knowledge sharing and make it easier for employees to access the information they need to do their jobs.

By implementing these strategies, companies can help combat knowledge hiding and promote knowledge sharing among employees, ultimately leading to improved performance and productivity.

What else might be affecting your team's productivity?

If you liked this article, check out our other resources for teams who want to be more productive:

[eBook] 5 Reasons Projects Fail

Knowledge hiding and a lack of transparency aren't the only things potentially affecting your team's success. Learn more about common pitfalls work projects face with our popular eBook, 5 Reasons Projects Fail.

Download eBook

[eBook] The Workflow Trap: the unsustainable ways we organize work & how to fix them

Technology plays a critical role in our ability to get things done each day. But if your technology stack isn't designed for transparency and collaboration, it's probably getting in the way of both. 

The truth is companies actually lose 20-30% of potential revenue every year due to workflow inefficiencies. Yet many continue to “make do” with their current processes. Learn to spot the traps you've fallen into and how to get out with our free eBook, The Workflow Trap

Download eBook


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