The 2 factors that might help increase knowledge sharing in your organisation

“In today’s economy, the most important resource is no longer labor, capital or land; it is knowledge” – PETER DRUCKER

Research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior looked at whether perceptions of climate and feeling trusted by one’s manager could lead to more knowledge sharing.

This is important research for organisations looking to gain a competitive advantage. Companies who have created an environment whereby knowledge is exchanged freely and across team boundaries are more likely to keep one step ahead. Those organisations where silo-working and internal competition are the order of the day are more likely to struggle to move at the pace needed to survive and thrive in the 21st century. Indeed, the researchers state,

“…one of the greatest challenges that organizations face stems from practices of hoarding/hiding knowledge”

Underpinning this is the quality of an organisation’s managers and their ability to bring out the best in each individual team member. As Tom Peters says in his new book, The Excellence Dividend,

“…first-line leaders are, as I see it, a business organization’s Asset #1, but most businesses do not behave accordingly”

The researchers investigated the relationship between perceptions of a mastery climate, feeling trusted by one’s manager and the extent to which these helped with knowledge sharing. These factors were examined at an individual and a group level.

It’s important to differentiate between a mastery motivational climate which bases success and failure around co-operation, helping, learning and effort; as opposed to a performance climate which focuses on individual attainment along a more binary, win-lose mechanism. In a silo culture, a performance climate may be more likely to have individual objectives that, albeit unintentionally, place employees at odds with each other. The researchers put it best when they say,

“Inherent in a mastery climate is a value system that fosters a responsibility to help”

Alongside this is the idea that for employees to engage in trusting behaviour, i.e. willingly sharing knowledge and information, they need to feel trusted by others, in particular their manager. This is referred to as ‘felt trust’.

The research

Five organisations in Norway, from across different sectors, participated in the research.

A survey approach was used with 1,122 employees from across the organisations responding to statements about perceived mastery climate, perceived performance climate and felt trust from supervisors. The researchers mitigated against any potential bias from self-reports by asking respondents’ supervisors to give ratings on their employee’s level of knowledge sharing.

The paired supervisor-employee measure was a critical measure, meaning that if supervisor rating wasn’t given then the individual concerned was excluded from the final analysis. Of the 1,122 people who participated, 956 supervisor-employee pairs were obtained. These were clustered in to 245 groups which worked out at approximately four individual respondents per supervisor.

The findings

At an individual level, knowledge sharing is driven to some degree by a perceived mastery climate which is underpinned by feeling trusted by one’s manager. This aggregates up to a team level, where a mastery climate is a direct predictor of the collective team feeling trusted by the manager.

“…employees’ beliefs and expectations of their supervisors’ trustworthiness can shape their own willingness to engage in trusting behaviors”

This isn’t surprising. A team climate that is underpinned by co-operation, sharing and learning is more likely to have a manager who trusts their staff and hence, that trust is felt by staff.

Implications and solutions

While there are some limitations with this study, namely that the design means causality hasn’t been tested, nonetheless it provides some insight for organisations and managers.

“…imparting and exchanging knowledge and information is positively associated with both team and organizational productivity and performance”

Things for managers and practitioners to think about on the back of this study:

  1. Reward and recognition: Are you recognising and rewarding mastery climate behaviour or performance behaviour? The former is focused on co-operation, learning, sharing and helping, the latter is more individualistic. Therefore, showing appreciation for and rewarding people who exhibit these qualities can help foster a mastery climate.
  2. Involve your staff in decision making: This is a way for managers to demonstrate they trust their staff. As we’ve seen, feeling trusted by one’s manager opens up the door to trusting behaviour such as sharing knowledge and information.
  3. Give people choice: Rather than telling your staff what they should do, why not offer them a choice as to how to go about doing a piece of work. This is about tapping in to a coaching style of management. The act of giving people a choice shows you trust their judgement.
  4. Set clear parameters: For some managers and organisations moving to a position of trust and a mastery climate will be a journey. Particularly if your current climate is extremely hierarchical and directive. One way to manage this is to give people choice and freedom but set some boundaries around this. I often refer to this as ‘rules of the game’ when working with managers and their teams. In other words, set out what is needed but leave the ‘how’ up to the person, making clear both the positive and negative consequences.
  5. Get an agreed and clear definition of success: When trusting a member of staff to do a piece of work, maybe that they’ve not done before, take the time to discuss what success looks like. Remember, not only are you showing trust but you’re trying to create a mastery climate. This means one success criteria will be the extent to which the person has shared knowledge with others. Don’t just give your definition of success. Ask the person for theirs. This self-rating is as important as yours. This then provides a helpful platform for discussion when reviewing what actually happened later on.

Research reference:

Nerstad, C.G.L., Searle, R., Cerne, M., Dysvik, A., Skerlavaj, M. & Scherer, R. (2018). Perceived mastery climate, felt trust and knowledge sharing. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(4), 429-447.

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