Men and women hide what they know from colleagues in different ways

Men and women exhibit different behaviours in the ways they hide what they know at work, according to new research from academics at the UCL Global Business School for Health (UCL GBSH). The findings, published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, suggest men feel more entitled than women to conceal their knowledge: they hide it more often than women, specifically through rationalised hiding, while women use evasive hiding and playing dumb. Men also conceal knowledge more frequently in a female-dominated environment and are more likely to use the same methods as women, since they believe that women will sanction them less than men for this behaviour.

Participants – UK based workers employed in a variety of industries – answered questions about their demographics, work attitudes, and knowledge hiding behaviours, focusing on three types: evasive hiding (providing incorrect or incomplete information), playing dumb (pretending not to know the answer), and rationalised hiding (admitting to concealing knowledge but sometimes with a genuine reason, e.g., privacy or confidentiality reasons).

Dr Paola Zappa, lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and HR management at UCL GBSH, and Dr Tatiana Andreeva, Associate Professor at Maynooth University School of Business, investigated the influence of gender on knowledge hiding.

Although intentionally withholding knowledge from colleagues can be damaging for individuals and organisations, this behaviour may be an attempt to cope with work conflict, psychological stress, or to gain a competitive advantage over colleagues, according to the paper, Whose lips are sealed? Gender differences in knowledge hiding at work.

“Rationalised hiding does not necessarily involve deception, and leads to lower turnover intentions and higher job satisfaction. Therefore, men are likely to benefit more, as they protect their knowledge by selecting the most inconsequential or safest way to do so,” explains Dr Zappa.

For women, openly admitting to not sharing knowledge may be perceived as going against the social expectation of being caring and helpful and may lead to negative responses from colleagues. Dr Zappa continues, “By pretending not to know the answer to a colleague’s request, women might reinforce the gender stereotype of not being competent, harming their reputation within the company”.

The paper concludes that managers should counteract gendered stereotypes around competence and decrease social pressure on female employees to avoid rationalised hiding. This can be done by acknowledging the expertise of female employees and the value of their knowledge.