Knowledge Hoarding: Understanding the Motivations and How to Combat It

Nataša Mlađenović
Nataša Mlađenović
Jan 18, 202310 minute read

With the advent of digital technology and remote work, it's becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that information is shared effectively.

Some of it is due to technological limitations, flawed procedures and processes, and a lack of team communication. But sadly, a lot of it is down to human nature and behavior.

knowledge horiding vs. knowledge sharing - lorino

Knowledge hoarding can be an insidious problem in any organization, as it prevents the free flow of information which ultimately leads to collective failure.

In this article, we're going to take a look at what knowledge hoarding is, and how to identify and prevent it from happening within your company.

What is Knowledge Hoarding?

Knowledge hoarding is when one gathers knowledge and deliberately withholds it from others in order to maintain power or advantages.

This leads to important knowledge being siloed within a single individual or department, and anyone else can only get it if they are willing to go through those people.

For them, that ensures that their expertise is valued and gives them a sense of control over their domain.

For the organization, however, it can cause significant inefficiencies, as its resources are not being used to the best of their abilities. It can also be a risk to the organization's knowledge base and productivity if the hoarder leaves without passing on any of their wisdom.

Sometimes it's done intentionally for a variety of reasons (which we'll discuss in a moment), other times it's unintentional, due to a lack of awareness.

Either way, by keeping their expertise close to them, they're not only harming their team's productivity and efficiency but also putting the organization's continuity at risk.

That's why it's so important for managers to identify potential barriers that may be hindering knowledge sharing and understand why employees are sometimes so eager to keep their knowledge for themselves.

Hoarding Knowledge vs. Hoarding Information

Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, there is a slight but important difference between hoarding knowledge and hoarding information.

Hoarding knowledge means that someone is reluctant to share their insights, expertise, and experience with others while hoarding information is more related to withholding data and documents.

Both can be hazardous, but knowledge hoarding is more difficult to manage since most people tend to jealously guard their own expertise, feeling that it's their private intellectual property and they can do whatever they want with it.

Information, on the other hand, is common property. Be it spreadsheets, reports, presentations, or other documents - pretty much everyone understands that those should be shared with any team member who needs them.

So if you have an information hoarding problem in your company, it's usually because of a lack of understanding or awareness, or inefficiencies in procedures and processes.

Knowledge hoarding, however, is usually a sign of something deeper - a lack of trust, motivation, or simply bad team dynamics.

Why do Employees Hoard Knowledge?

Well, to put it simply: it's human nature. The natural inclination of employees at every level in almost every organization is to hoard knowledge, especially knowledge that is deemed valuable.

This is partly because of evolutionary mechanisms that drive us to strive for power and status; and partly because of other self-preservation tactics, such as feeling more secure in our role if we're the only one who knows how to do something.

The motivators can be divided into three primary factors:

  1. Power - These individuals have exclusive control of key corporate info and by blocking the free sharing of it, they ensure that they stay in power and control.

  2. Fear - By holding onto their knowledge, some try to protect themselves from being redundant, reduce their replaceability and become invaluable to the organization. In a business world that can often be dominated by insecurity, it's easy to see why some of the older workers, for example, might hoard knowledge out of fear they'll be replaced and have their value diminished.

  3. Ego - Research shows that Machiavellianism is a major factor when it comes to hoarding knowledge. It seems like people who tend towards being manipulative are more likely to hoard their knowledge for their own benefit or even just for the ego boost of feeling like they have something special over others.

There’s More Reward in Hoarding Than in Sharing

Apart from the fundamental human instinct to hold on to something as valuable as knowledge, there are other contributing factors to why people hoard knowledge instead of sharing it.

One of them being, that in many corporate cultures, there is far more reward for hoarding knowledge than for sharing it.

And yes, sure there are some altruistic individuals out there who do share selflessly, but in most cases, there's simply not enough incentive to give up something that gives you an edge over others.

In organizations where expertise is held in high regard, but mentoring and helping others is not taken into consideration, it makes perfect sense that rational people would be hesitant to share their knowledge and therefore power.

From promotions, bonuses, and recognition all the way to job security and longevity - there are a lot of rewards for those who choose to keep knowledge and information close to their chest.

And very few companies choose to incentivize and reward employees for sharing knowledge and collaborating, be it in the form of bonuses or other types of recognition.

Given this reality, it's no wonder that knowledge hoarding has become an endemic problem in organizations everywhere.

Sharing Knowledge is Tedious

And let's be honest - sharing knowledge is tedious, as it requires effort, time, and energy.

Teaching even just one person a skill or a process can be very time-consuming and often it's not seen as a priority by the company so employees are left on their own to figure out how and when they will teach others.

Sharing smaller bits of knowledge is dificult as well, as not a lot of organizations allow for time to document and share it, nor do they provide proper platforms to do it more efficiently.

Encourage Employee Development

Give employees the opportunity to share their knowledge and progress with each other.

Combine that with the above-mentioned lack of incentives, and it's pretty easy to understand why knowledge hoarding has become the norm.

And yes, we have painted a pretty grim picture here, but the truth is that knowledge hoarding can be combatted and even prevented.

How to Stop the Hoarding of Knowledge and Information?

Once we understand why so many people tend to hoard knowledge and information, it becomes easier to see how we can create an environment that encourages collaboration, sharing, and mentoring.

1. Explain the mutual benefits of knowledge sharing.

Before we start talking about solutions, and how to encourage employees to share their knowledge and skills, let's take a look at why they should do it in the first place.

Sharing knowledge is obviously the better option for the organization, but what's in it for the employees?

You won't be able to circumvent the innate reluctance of people to share their knowledge simply by telling them it's better for the greater good of the company. Instead, try to communicate how they will benefit from it:

1. Sharing knowledge can increase their visibility

Being an expert on a topic is great, but there's not a lot of benefit to it if nobody knows that you're an expert.

By sharing knowledge and helping others, employees can increase their visibility, which then leads to more recognition from their peers and superiors.

Not only that, but it will make them more marketable in the specialist environment.

2. Sharing knowledge lets them take ownership of projects

By teaching and helping others, employees can become the go-to people when it comes to certain topics or skills, making them more likely to be part of bigger projects and initiatives.

This makes their work experience more exciting and rewarding, as they get to have a greater impact and take ownership of projects.

3. Securing future success

Times are changing and even if they choose to hoard and hide their knowledge, it won't guarantee job security in the long run.

Scholars agree that those who are most successful in the future of an organization will be those who are able to transfer their knowledge and expertise to others.

So in order to stay relevant in the ever-evolving job market, employees need to be willing to share their knowledge with others and learn how to do it effectively.

2. Make knowledge sharing a part of the organizational culture.

Organizational culture is a complex and powerful thing, and it can either promote knowledge sharing or discourage it.

In a cut-throat environment, where competition and success are the only measures of worth, knowledge hoarding will become a norm.

So if we want to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing within an organization, then it's essential to create an environment that values people and collaboration.

Creating a collaborative team culture will not only encourage employees to share their knowledge and skills, but will also make them more engaged in the work they do.

So don't make everything a tournament, but rather a team effort.

Provide incentives, reward employees who share their knowledge and skills with others, and make sure there is plenty of opportunity to learn by investing in knowledge-sharing initiatives such as mentoring programs, training sessions, and other corporate education activities.

3. Recognize and reward employees who are good at teaching others.

Technically, this is also part of "culture", but it's worth mentioning again.

We've already talked about how the lack of rewards is one of the main reasons why people are reluctant to share their knowledge. It is a pay off after all: you expect them to give something that they worked hard to gain, and they expect something in return.

So rewarding those who share their knowledge and skills with others is essential to ensure that knowledge sharing becomes an integral part of the culture.

What type of rewards? That will largely depend on your company, your employees, and the type of knowledge that's being shared.

But the key is to make sure that you recognize the effort, time, and energy that goes into teaching others and make sure that it pays off for those who share their knowledge.

By doing this you're showing that knowledge sharing is valued by the organization, which will make others more likely to follow suit.

4. Implement a knowledge management system that encourages sharing.

If your company is losing institutional knowledge, struggling with knowledge silos, onboardings are taking forever, and yes - your employees are hoarding their knowledge - then you probably need a knowledge-sharing platform.

These systems not only make it easier to share knowledge, but they also make the process of knowledge sharing more transparent and enjoyable.

This means it will be a less tedious task for your employees to share their knowledge, and in turn, it will become more natural for them to do so.

These systems also allow us to structure the knowledge and make it easier to find, track and manage - which makes it more probable to be used.

There's a multitude of those available nowadays - from simple internal networks to elaborate employee apps. Whichever you choose, make sure it's the right fit for your company and that it's user-friendly, otherwise your employees might refuse to adopt it.

5. Build trust among team members and improve communication.

In order for people to share anything, they first need to trust each other. And in order to trust each other, they need to communicate openly and efficiently.

By creating a transparent workplace, where peers and superiors are willing to help each other, mentor their colleagues, and communicate openly, you can build a culture of trust that encourages knowledge sharing.

In Conclusion

Knowledge hoarding can be a destructive force in organizations, but a lot of times it goes unnoticed. The signs aren't really obvious.

It is a much subtler form of sabotage that slowly, but surely, does its damage.

That's why it's important to be proactive. Even if you don't see it, even if the numbers don't show it yet - it is something that is prevalent in most organizations and can have a devastating impact if you don't address it.

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