Ever had the feeling a colleague isn’t telling you the whole story? You’re probably right. “Knowledge hiding” or refusing to share information when asked is something roughly one in 10 employees will engage in at some point in their careers.

How they choose to conceal it varies, but it appears that gender has a significant role to play, according to new research co-authored by Dr Tatiana Andreeva from Maynooth University’s business school and Dr Paola Zappa from University College London.

“I think we’ve all experienced knowledge hiding in some way. You go to somebody looking for advice because you are sure they can help. But then they say they don’t know. So you end up leaving puzzled because you’re sure they do know but just aren’t telling you,” Andreeva says.

When people decide to hide knowledge they typically do so using one of three strategies, she adds. They “play dumb” and pretend that they don’t know the answer. They “evasively hide” or indicate they will follow up later with the information and never do or they “rationalise hide” which means openly stating they cannot share the information due to a specific reason such as client confidentiality or data protection.

What is pertinent about the new research is that gender appears to be adding a new twist to an age-old problem. The authors say that even though gender has always been widely recognised as an important lens for understanding all sorts of employee behaviours, its role in knowledge hiding up to now has been overlooked.

The Andreeva/Zappa study, Whose Lips are Sealed?, suggests that men hide their knowledge from colleagues more frequently than women. In addition, women and men hide knowledge in ways that match expectations about their gender stereotypes.

Society expects women to be co-operative and to put communal interest ahead of their own. To conform to these norms they use “evasive hiding” and “playing dumb” to avoid sharing knowledge. By contrast, society accepts that men are “breadwinners” who will robustly defend their patch, so they use “rationalised hiding” as this allows them to protect their knowledge in a socially-acceptable way.

That these approaches to knowledge hiding break down so clearly along gender lines came as a big surprise to Andreeva. “We were looking at knowledge hiding in general and trying to understand better why people do it. But the gender aspect became so apparent that it was not something we could just pass by.”

In short Andreeva reckons it all comes back to the gender role expectations and behaviours that start getting laid down in early childhood. “The classic example of this is the assertion that boys don’t cry,” she says. “When someone tells this to a three-year-old it may sound very innocent but it is effectively enforcing a gender stereotype. When they grow up boys think this is a natural part of their being and the same things happens with girls.

“The second big influence is social regulation, meaning that people are aware that others expect them to behave in line with gender roles,” Andreeva adds. “Knowledge hiding is considered much more normal for men, it’s what men do. For women it’s the opposite because they are meant to be helpful and knowledge hiding is openly not helping.”

The authors say that in designing interventions aimed at minimising knowledge hiding in the workplace managers need to be aware that employees engage in different behaviours based on the gender composition of the workplace as well as on individual gender reactions.

Andreeva adds that managerial interventions, such as creating a highly competitive work environment, can also have an impact. For example, heavy emphasis on individual performance has been shown to increase knowledge hiding and to legitimise knowledge hiding more for men than for women. Women often feel less comfortable than men in choosing rationalised hiding, and Andreeva says that managers need to make it clear that it’s an okay behaviour for both groups when appropriate.

On foot of the new research Andreeva says that one solution is for organisations to do what they can to combat stereotype gender roles. “If we eliminate the reason why these differences happen then I think the behaviours would follow. Knowledge hiding harms organisations in terms of missed opportunities for collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and innovation.”

The research also shed a more nuanced light on some of the reasons people knowledge hide in the first place. Knowledge hiding behaviour is often seen only as self-serving and malevolent, with people guarding knowledge for competitive advantage or as a means of retaliation against a colleague. However, Andreeva says there are also more benign reasons behind it.

“What we also see in our data is that people do it when they are overloaded. They just can’t cope with another request as it may require time they don’t have to respond to it properly and this may have implications for job descriptions and the expectations of managers.

“Secondly, we found that people sometimes declined to share when they found requests for information were becoming excessive or repetitive. We found people saying that they had already received the same request from the same person maybe three or four times and here they were again. They felt it was legitimate to refuse because it wasn’t fair that the other person couldn’t be bothered to learn what was needed for themselves.”