Hoarding Ideas at Work? Why You Should Stop

Worried that someone at work might be stealing your good ideas? Relax. It doesn't happen as often as you think.

A study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal discovered employees have nothing to gain from hiding their insights from co-workers, and just end up hurting themselves by doing so. The study's authors said employees should reconsider and be careful about hiding knowledge from their peers, because what goes around comes around.

"More specifically, employees who intentionally hide more knowledge seem bound to receive such selfish behavior in return from their co-workers, which will ultimately hurt them and decrease their creativity," the researchers wrote in the study. [Crowdsourcing Business Ideas: How to Do It]

One of the paper's authors, Matej Cerne of Ljubljana University in Slovenia, said certain workplaces encourage this behavior. Specifically, in workplaces that have a performance climate, where employees are encouraged to compete with each other in the belief that this enhances performance, workers certainly have an incentive to hide knowledge, he said.

"But they're not likely to gain from it, because in the tit-for-tat culture that prevails in such settings, co-workers will respond in kind, and the culprit's standing with the boss will probably suffer," Cerne said.

In contrast, Cerne said, those who keep ideas to themselves can probably count on leniency in companies that have a mastery climate, where the emphasis is on cooperation and learning.

"But, given the lack of emphasis on individual rewards in such settings, there is little incentive to hide knowledge," he said. "In short, it's a no-win option either way — incentive with retaliation or forbearance without incentive."

As part of the study, researchers surveyed 240 mid-level employees, who were looked to for creative ideas, at two separate companies. Researchers asked these employees how likely they were to hide insights from their co-workers and about what type of motivational climate — performance or mastery — they felt characterized their workplace. Additionally, their 34 supervisors were asked to rate the creativity of the individual workers.

The research revealed that in high-mastery climates, there was little difference in the ratings workers received for creativity from their supervisors, regardless of whether they kept their ideas to themselves or not. However, in a high-performance climate, knowledge-hiding was linked to lower ratings. The study's authors said this means that the more knowledge-hiding workers admitted to, the less creative their bossesconsidered them to be.

To explain the cause of these findings, Cerne and his colleagues carried out an experiment in which 66 pairs of undergraduate students were assigned to collaborate on a creative marketing exercise. To simulate the mastery climate, researchers encouraged one-third of the pairs to cooperate and exchange thoughts and ideas. Meanwhile, researchers instructed a second group, in a simulation of a performance climate, to keep in mind that their colleagues were actually their competitive rivals. In a third group, serving as a control, researchers provided no inducement regarding motivational climate. In addition, researchers covertly instructed half the participants of each group to hide their ideas and information.

The researchers found that, in a performance climate, knowledge-hiding by one partner fostered distrust in the other partner. However, this did not happen in the mastery climate or in the control groups. In addition, a partner's distrust, in turn, has a negative effect on the creativity of knowledge-hiders, as assessed by two experts who were asked to judge the quality of participants' marketing ideas.

Those results lead the authors to conclude that when a co-worker is denied knowledge needed in order to be creative, the co-worker is likely to reciprocate knowledge-hiding. This then impedes the creativity of the employee who wouldn't share ideas in the first place.

The study was co-authored by Christina Nerstad, Anders Dysvik and Miha Skerlavaj of the BI Norwegian Business School.

Originally published on Business News Daily.

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