Why your colleagues are probably withholding key information from you

Playing dumb is just one point on the “continuum of deception” at work

Illustration of a man stamping “confidential” onto his own forehead

(Kagan McLeod)

Ever asked a colleague for information and he said he didn’t know? Did you consider the possibility that he actually did know and was just playing dumb? New research has found that such Kremlinesque secret-hoarding is more common than you might think.

Despite organizations everywhere working on fostering a more collaborative environment for their workers, encouraging them to share, and touting the cliché that “there’s no ‘I’ in team,” it seems as though some employees will still deliberately withhold information from their colleagues.

A new study from McMaster University and the University of Toronto, Scarborough, says this phenomenon, called “knowledge-hiding” is extremely common and takes different forms in the workplace—some of which are more harmful than others. The researchers examined the conscious attempt to withhold or conceal knowledge that was asked for by another member of the organization, and found that there was a “continuum of deception” among information withholders.

On the least-damaging end of the spectrum, workers felt they were justified to conceal information when it was deemed confidential. Further along the spectrum, the researchers found that some employees withheld information that a colleague actually needed by “playing dumb,” either saying they’ll provide the information later and not following through, or giving them incorrect or incomplete information.


The researchers said people’s actions are contrary to their employers’ and their colleagues’ interests because workers are often rewarded individually for their performance. Just take it from Michael Jordan: During his 2009 acceptance speech into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, Jordan recalled scoring roughly 20 points in a row late in a game to come back with a win. After the game he had a conversation with former Chicago Bulls’ assistant coach Tex Winter, who reminded Jordan that there’s no ‘I’ in team. Jordan quipped back: “There’s [an] ‘I’ in win.”

In other words, if you really want to ensure a collaborative environment, you need to think about putting incentives in place that reward team outcomes—instead of just individual performance.