Skip to main content

However much we like to think we're team players, a surprising number of us withhold information from co-workers, researchers have found.

Moreover, we tend to deceive ourselves about what we are doing.

People who are asked for assistance will often play dumb, say they will help out, but stall as long as possible.

Some give co-workers a little information, but not enough to run with.

Many would deny they do any of this, but are quick to identify others who engage in such "knowledge hiding"

In reality, few of us are as helpful as we pretend to be, say the authors of new research to be released this week.

"It's funny, everyone thinks they are an excellent actor and can hide their own knowledge-hiding performance," says McMaster University researcher Catherine Connelly, who has surveyed more than 1,200 Canadians on how they have been treated, and how they have treated their colleagues' requests for help or information.

Prof. Connelly found that it is "quite common" for employees to withhold or conceal information that has been requested by others, but it is also common for them to try to give the appearance of being helpful when they are actually stonewalling.

"The No. 1 thing that really comes into play is this strategy what we call playing dumb. Someone asks for help and you say, 'I'd love to help, but I really don't know anything about it,' and it's not true," said Prof. Connelly, who will present her findings with two co-researchers at a conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in Dallas on Friday.

Prof. Connelly said organizations that want to instill a culture of co-operation and sharing need to delve into some of the reasons that employees deliberately withhold information.

"Knowledge management has emerged as one of the most popular initiatives over the last decade to enhance organizational competitiveness . . . and researchers and practitioners alike have touted knowledge management systems as the method for capturing and transferring knowledge and transforming this knowledge into a competitive advantage," Prof. Connelly and her co-authors wrote.

"Everyone is talking about teams, about how everybody is going to share. It's this happy rainbow world of Romper Room," Prof. Connelly said. "That's very unrealistic."

Her research disclosed that more ambitious employees tend to avoid playing dumb -- it would hurt their advancement prospects -- but they will employ other strategies.

"They might give you a little information, but not the real story," said Prof. Connelly, an assistant professor at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business.

"Or they will give you an explanation: 'I'd love to help you, but it's confidential. Only certain people are allowed to have this information.' That makes them look important. At the same time, it also keeps the information for themselves."

Prof. Connelly and co-researchers David Zweig of the University of Toronto and Jane Webster of Queen's University uncovered a number of motives for employees withholding information: The person asking for the information has never done anything to help them, they have been burned in the past by others taking credit for their knowledge, or they simply don't have time to tutor colleagues in complicated concepts.

Many study participants reported reluctance to help someone who had been rude to them, some cited a desire to appear smarter by being the acknowledged expert in a certain area and some were "surprisingly candid" in expressing fears that the person they shared the information with might actually do a better job and show them up, Prof. Connelly said.

Interact with The Globe