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While we engage in learning to grow our knowledge, we’re often acquiring knowledge from others. But what happens when others don’t actually share their knowledge? This week, we’re focusing on knowledge hiding. Specifically, we aim to answer the following:

  • What are the impacts of leader-signaled knowledge hiding?
  • What kind of knowledge is being hidden? How and why?

Leading without Hiding

Knowledge hiding has traditionally focused on knowledge hiding at the individual level, i.e., one employee hiding knowledge from the other. However, this LSW focuses on research that expands the view of knowledge hiding by looking into different levels, among groups, through organizations, etc. When knowledge is shared in the workplace, it is often tribal knowledge, meaning we can’t really acquire it from anywhere other than others. Thus, evaluating knowledge hiding alongside knowledge sharing is crucial, as it assists with understanding the company culture of helping or hindering colleagues.

Studies in knowledge hiding often focus on employee’s knowledge hiding (EKH), which looks at coworkers. But what if it is happening from above? A recent study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior introduced the concept of leader-signaled knowledge hiding (LSKH) to assess impacts when “leaders signal employees that knowledge hiding (KH) is practiced, tolerated, and expected” (Offergelt et al., 2018).

The research evaluated three dimensions of knowledge hiding: “evasive hiding (EH), playing dumb (PD), and rationalized hiding (RH)” (Offergelt et al., 2018). Evasive hiding consists of providing misleading or false information, playing dumb is simply pretending you cannot answer a question, and rationalized hiding is when reasons are given for not disclosing information. While EH and PD are considered deceptive because information is withheld for “personal reasons,” RH is not since the other party is made aware (Offergelt et al., 2018). Due to the differences in the dimensions, all three were independently evaluated.

In the first study, 1,162 employees completed a survey at 2 time points, 6 months apart. LSKH was evaluated through a variety of statements such as: “Sometimes my boss wants me to hide my knowledge” accompanied by “1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree)” (Offergelt et al., 2018). In addition, the three dimensions of KH, EH, PD, and RH, were evaluated for the employee. Turnover intention and job satisfaction were also evaluated at both time points. Lastly, relevant control variables were recorded as well, including “gender, education, country, and position tenure (Offergelt et al., 2018). In the second study, a follow-up of the first, 1,169 employees completed the same LSKH, KH, turnover, and job satisfaction surveys. However, a measure on psychological empowerment was also added.

What did they find? Well, lots on the impacts of knowledge hiding! EH and PD predicted higher turnover intentions, while RH showed the opposite effect. EH and PD also predicted lower job satisfaction, while RH illustrated higher job satisfaction (Offergelt et al., 2018). Essentially, this supports past working showing employee EH and PD are linked to undesirable outcomes. However, RH appears to be distinctly different, likely through not being “deceptive” in nature, and is actually related to desirable outcomes. Regarding LSKH, results illustrated a “trickle-down” effect such that LSKH showed a significant positive effect on “follower EH, PD, and RH” (Offergelt et al., 2018). The authors point to these results as showing that LSKH is “implicitly passed to employees through social learning” (Offergelt et al., 2018). Further, LSKH had an indirect negative effect on turnover and job satisfaction through EH and PD. Study 2 replicated these findings, as well as illustrated that EH and PD negatively predicted psychological empowerment.

TLDR; “Taken together, it shows that LSKH positively predicts all three dimensions of KH and, as assumed, exerts the expected influence on employees work attitudes” (Offergelt et al., 2018).

Key Takeaway: Research indicates that leader-signaled knowledge hiding trickles down through an organization, leading to higher rates in subordinates. Further, evasive hiding and playing dumb lead to higher turnover intention, lower job satisfaction, and lower psychological empowerment. Leaders and organizations should create environments where EH and PD are not exemplified or encouraged while fostering a communicative environment.

Read More ($): Offergelt, F., Spörrle, M., Moser, K., & Shaw, J. D. (2018). Leader-signaled knowledge hiding: Effects on employee’s job attitudes and empowerment. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40.

“Subordinates will show less KH when they work under leaders who avoid LSKH and in turn have more job satisfaction, feel more empowered, and harbor fewer turnover intentions.”
- Offergelt et al. (2018)

Knowledge Hiding: Where & Why

When looking at the boundary conditions of knowledge hiding (KH), many studies have evaluated individual characteristics for evasive hiding (EH), playing dumb (PD), and rationalized hiding (RH). For instance, those higher in empathy are less likely to engage in KH, while those with traits associated with the dark triad are more likely to engage in KH (Shrivastava et al., 2021). However, when moving up to an organizational level, research shows that employees may engage in KH independent from their own characteristics. For example, research suggests that organizational politics, psychological safety, collaborations norms, leadership signals, and the nature of performance feedback (group or individual) all play a role in KH behaviors (Shrivastava et al., 2021). Essentially, there are a multitude of studies on KH, each focusing on either a peer-to-peer interaction, a leader-to-subordinate relationship, or at a team/organizational level. When we stop and look at these findings, it is clear that KH has multiple levels of influence and that these levels likely interact, i.e., an organization that has collaborative norms but a leader signaling KH is probably different from an organization hosting that leader but without collaborative norms (Shrivastava et al., 2021). Thus, these multiple levels should be taken into account.

The authors further the conversation by qualifying two states of knowledge: tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge refers to the type of knowledge that is “difficult to articulate and consciously access (e.g., when making a sales pitch)” while explicit knowledge is easy to articulate and access consciously “(e.g., customer retention data)” (Shrivastava et al., 2021). They also reference component knowledge and architectural knowledge. Component knowledge is “knowledge about a distinct sub-routine or discrete aspect of a firm ’s operations, such as the one pertaining to specialist functions held by individuals or teams (e.g., billing or payroll),” while architectural knowledge refers to “knowledge about organization-wide operations” (Shrivastava et al., 2021). With this in mind, KH can occur from withholding explicit knowledge and/or failing to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Considering the incredible usefulness of tacit knowledge, although KH regarding tacit knowledge may not be as apparent, it can be more damaging (Shrivastava et al., 2021).

The types of knowledge are particularly important when considering cross-functional teams, as shared “knowledge helps employees understand how their respective areas of expertise come together to produce the final whole” (Shrivastava et al., 2021). Thus, if KH is occurring between teams, particularly with tacit knowledge, cross-functional collaboration becomes much more difficult and can lead to a learning loss for multiple teams. In essence, encouraging exploration can enhance organizational knowledge. But, how do tacit and explicit knowledge get converted?

The authors suggest this happens through one of four modes: socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization (Shrivastava et al., 2021). Socialization, as you likely expect, is when we absorb tacit knowledge through observing another person - we can then share those learnings, which turns the tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Externalization occurs when the new explicit knowledge is applied. Combination is when ”individuals from different areas combin[e] their explicit knowledge with those of others to develop a knowledge system” (Shrivastava et al., 2021). Lastly, internalization brings us full circle, in which the explicit knowledge is internalized, becoming tacit knowledge once again. The cycle can assist in establishing exactly where and why knowledge might be getting hidden (see image).

(Shrivastava et al., 2021)

The theoretical framework, summed up with the graph, represents the knowledge creation cycle, types of knowledge, and how/why knowledge gets hidden. In the “T-Comp” quadrant, functional bias is likely the root cause of KH. As “functional specialists” generally work independently, collaboration is not always available. Positioning the organization in a way that promotes collaboration would be “the cure” here. In the “X-Comp” quadrant, misaligned incentives are likely to blame for KH, such that an individual is not incentivized to share their knowledge. Thus, incentive systems should be implemented if this is where KH is occurring. In the “X-Arch” quadrant, dysfunctional structures, such as power dynamics, are most likely to be the root cause here. Lastly, the KH may occur in the “T-Arch” quadrant due to value incongruence. The authors suggest this occurs when “large organizations, saddled by their default processes, are unable to mobilize the tacit architectural knowledge at the relatively smaller scale needed to acquire an intuitive understanding of successfully manufacturing and launching the new product in question” (Shrivastava et al., 2021).

While I know this was a *lengthy* summary, I found this framework to be incredibly interesting and practical! When managers understand the knowledge creation process, they can use targeted initiatives to decrease KH. The framework also enables leaders to understand why and how KH occurs to adjust organizational culture accordingly (Shrivastava et al., 2021).

Key Takeaway: Understanding where and why knowledge hiding occurs is a key in fixing it! Encouraging collaboration, socialization, and open communication are essential to avoiding knowledge hiding behaviors.

Read More ($): Shrivastava, A., Pazzaglia, F., & Sonpar, K. (2021). The role of nature of knowledge and knowledge creating processes in knowledge hiding: Reframing knowledge hiding. Journal of Business Research, 136.

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Learning Science Weekly is written and edited by Katie Erhardt, Ph.D.

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