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How to Deal with Negative Conversations

Why Some People Don't Share What They Know


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		  Why Some People Don't Share What They Know   

 Employees of organizations large and small are living repositories of valuable knowledge that co-workers could use. But all too often, they don't share these ideas that author Thomas Stewart has called "vernacular knowledge - harvesting, organizing, and passing around insights that come from the grassroots of an organization."   

Why might that be so?   

Some straightforward explanations are available.   

One of the simplest is that if people are not near one another, they tend not to share. (The fancy word for nearness is "propinquity.") Absent that, sharing with the far-aways plummets, this according to a major study during the 70s by MIT professor Thomas J. Allen. And just how near is near? Closer than 33 feet, and the closer, the between desks, the better. Beyond that distance, only a trickle of sharing conversation tends to take place. Most knowledge management experts generally agree that despite the possibility of the internet and low-cost long distance phoning, "close distance matters."   

In fact, some organizations have discovered that employees working on similar projects in different parts of the same floor of a building did not know they were duplicating each others' (expensive) work.   

The antidote seems obvious: Find out who knows what and who else needs to know this, then position these folks in close proximity so they can easily exchange ideas. Keeping them out of cubicles and other "silos" also helps. Think "newsroom."   

Proximity helps a lot, but by itself may not be sufficient. Another obstacle of equal power to impede sharing is vulnerability. For example, a worker might hesitate to ask questions of a superior for fear of appearing dumb or incompetent. This fear is worsened if the superior tends to be critical and difficult to talk to. Alternatively, a superior may not wish to ask a subordinate for his knowledge because she feels she "should" already know it. (We note that General Halftrack of Beetle Bailey cartoon fame never asks Lieutenant Fuzz for his ideas.) And sometimes it is just plain intellectual snobbery that keeps people from sharing or from asking for valuable working knowledge.   

During my first years as a nave assistant professor, I sought to share ideas I was excited about with "my betters," some of the senior faculty. I quickly learned that I had not "earned the right" to take up their time with my ideas - even though they were largely ignorant of them. They talked among themselves, but they listened very little to us "Lieutenant Fuzzes" in the department. After all, what could we know?   

Another kind of vulnerability is the fear that if one shares knowledge, the receiver of that knowledge will be a threat to take over one's position. Or that another will steal one's ideas. And there is some substance to that fear. Nowadays, with cost-cutting, it happens that less expensive junior employees may replace the more costly senior employees.   

Some organizations have installed a certain employee to be the "knowledge manager" whose responsibility it is to know pretty accurately the backgrounds and expertise of a large number of co-workers. Usually this manager is a good "people person" and a connector who job is to be in charge of practical networking. If a worker is seeking some special knowledge, he or she can go to this manager to find out whom to talk to. The manager checks to see that the need is important, even urgent, then brokers the connection between the one who needs to know and the ones who do know.   

For nearly fifteen years, at least since the advent of "the learning organization," company leaders have sought ways to make most productive use of the knowledge stored within their employees. That search continues today for the best ways to create a "sharing organization" in this knowledge economy. We now know that for much meaningful sharing, what is needed are both a close proximity among sharers, and a set of social conditions that makes it safe to ask for and share what you know.  


Loren Ekroth 2012, All rights reserved.

Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life.

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