How gender impacts workplace knowledge sharing

How does gender impact knowledge sharing at work?

In modern workplaces, promoting the flow of information and knowledge is vital for both efficiency and innovation in organisations. However, colleagues will still deliberately withhold or conceal work-related information from each other, known as knowledge hiding, which is typically seen as counterproductive for companies. Knowledge hiding has been found to detrimentally affect relationships, attitudes, and performance for individuals as well as creativity and productivity for organisations.

If there are a multitude of adverse effects related to knowledge hiding, why do people still do it?

Gender differences in knowledge hiding

Previous studies have revealed that many factors, from individual personality traits and competitiveness to organisational climate, can make knowledge hiding more likely. Interestingly enough, we know much less about who engages in knowledge-hiding. This is precisely what research from the UCL Global Business School for Health and Maynooth University endeavoured to explore, particularly with regard to the influence of gender.

Within the research, almost 500 individuals employed across a number of different industries in the United Kingdom were surveyed three times between November 2020 and June 2021 and questioned about their professional information, work attitudes, and, most importantly, knowledge-hiding behaviours. The study focused on three critical behavioural patterns: evasive hiding (giving information that is incorrect or incomplete), playing dumb (pretending not to know the answer to a request), and rationalised hiding (admitting to concealing knowledge but with a genuine excuse, e.g., privacy or confidentiality).

Credit. Midjourney

The findings indicate men withhold their knowledge from colleagues more often than women and are more likely to do so through rationalised hiding. However, when women do have the ability to hide, they are more likely to do so by playing dumb and evasive hide. The gender composition of the workplace exacerbates differences between women and men. In a workplace where women are the majority, men tend to engage in knowledge-hiding more frequently. Moreover, they are inclined to adopt similar strategies as women, driven by the perception that women are less likely to reprimand them for this behaviour than men.

The consequences of knowledge hiding

These findings are particularly insightful when considering how the consequences that individuals face differ depending on the type of knowledge-hiding behaviour adopted. For example, rationalised hiding leads to lower turnover intentions and higher job satisfaction while potentially preventing the hider from experiencing stress and strain due to deception.

Women are subject to societal expectations to be caring and helpful. Therefore, openly admitting to concealing knowledge through rationalised hiding might be perceived as conflicting with this societal norm, resulting in unfavourable reactions from peers. Consequently, women lean towards resorting to evasive hiding or playing dumb. However, pretending not to know the answer to a request induces guilt and shame. Even more risky, it could inadvertently reinforce the gender-based stereotype of women lacking competence, jeopardising their standing within the company.

Engaging in evasive hiding can also lead to negative consequences as it involves promising to provide information later on, presenting its risks. Promising to provide information later can be viewed as the individual deliberately delaying sharing, thus disrupting workplace relationships. Also, evasive hiders may cause themselves stress as they spend additional time or effort sharing or pretending to share alternative information. Finally, an unfulfilled promise to provide information violates the societal expectation of women being helpful.

Considering the different behaviours and consequences, men are likely to benefit more, protecting their knowledge via the method that holds the least risk for them. Men do not experience the same societal expectations as women, so they can conceal and protect their knowledge without negative repercussions.

What should managers do?

Predictably, managers should create interventions designed to minimise knowledge hiding. In doing so, they should not aim for interventions that โ€œfit allโ€. Managers must be aware that an employeeโ€™s gender and gender composition will lead to differences in how they engage in knowledge hiding and, therefore, design interventions that acknowledge these differences.

For instance, it is important to avoid adopting management practices that over-emphasise individual performance, competition, and goal achievement. As these practices are consistent with societal expectations towards male behaviour, they legitimise men to resort to knowledge-hiding even more often.

Managers should also be aware that female employees may be reluctant to engage in rationalised hiding, even when there is a legitimate interest. Therefore, it is advisable to challenge gender-based stereotypes related to competency and alleviate social expectations that might prevent female employees from using rationalised hiding. Managers can do this by recognising and appreciating the abilities of female employees and how valued they are for their skills.

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Journal reference

Andreeva, T., & Zappa, P. (2023). Whose lips are sealed? Gender differences in knowledge hiding at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1287/mksc.2020.1264

Dr. Paola Zappa is a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at UCL Global Business School for Health in the UK, the world's first business school dedicated to healthcare. Her research interests have included the dynamics of interpersonal collaboration, knowledge creation and sharing, and their influence on organisational creativity and innovativeness.

Dr Tatiana Andreeva is an Associate Professor in Management and Organisational Behaviour at Maynooth University School of Business in Ireland. She also served as a Research Director in the School of Business from 2018 to 2023. Tatiana's research focuses on the intersections of knowledge management, organisational behaviour, and human resource management, with specific attention to the micro-foundations of organisational processes and the peculiarities of the contexts in which these processes evolve.