Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Hiding Knowledge:

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

…When leaders hide knowledge from service employees

American football coach, Bill Belichick, is one of the most successful coaches of all time. As a matter of fact, his New England Patriots team’s record of eleven consecutive playoff appearances, from 2009 to 2019, is the most in NFL history. Belichick obviously knows a thing or two about winning teams, which is why when a statement about teams is attributed to him, I would give it some attention.

Belichick is credited with this statement, “Good players can’t overcome bad coaching.”

Coming from such a great coach, one only has to give this saying some deep thought and you will be faced with the veracity of it. The statement is as true for a sports team as it is of a business team.

It is a fact that the behaviour of a leader has a direct impact on the behaviour of the team. A leader is not just someone placed in a position of authority. A leader is someone team members look up to, essentially making the leader a role model. A bad leader can therefore truly set a good team back.

Of all of the practices of bad leaders, one that I just cannot wrap my mind around is the practice of knowledge hiding by leaders. Defined as ‘the intentional effort for not sharing the knowledge or concealing it from those who requested it,’ leaders’ knowledge hiding is such a counterintuitive move that it makes no sense to me whatsoever.

A team leader is expected to lead a team to achieve set targets. One of the vital resources the team needs to succeed is knowledge. It is common knowledge that an effective flow of knowledge from a customer service team leader to those who deal directly with customers is an essential component of the service value chain. Any break in that chain would spell doom for the quality of service rendered. Without the leader’s input of valuable information, it becomes very difficult for a customer service team to deliver to the best of its ability. There are instances where the leader’s appearance at the front line, serving customers, is all the team members need to see to give off of their very best.

Why then would a leader deliberately hide knowledge from team members who need access to that knowledge to meet the set targets? Why would someone who is responsible for results sabotage the attainment of those same results?

There are several reasons why some leaders resort to knowledge hiding. One of which is a leader who suffers from a lack of confidence or has an inferiority complex. For such a leader, the knowledge they have, by virtue of their position, therefore becomes a weapon to use in whipping team members in line.

Unfortunately, knowledge hiding is not only restricted to leaders. As a matter of fact, the commonest occurrence of knowledge hiding happens amongst colleagues at work. Colleagues can use knowledge hiding to gain advantage over other colleagues, especially when there is a position being sought after. Lack of trust among colleagues can also result in knowledge hiding.

Knowledge hiding among colleagues is what researchers refer to as horizontal knowledge hiding. However, what this week’s piece is interested in is the more serious version of knowledge which occurs at the vertical level, i.e. leaders hiding knowledge from those who work under them.

I was once told a story about a company that sells vehicles, who had some managers who would resort to knowledge hiding, for whatever reason. For instance, new vehicles would be brought in and these managers would not give all the brochures and other important product information to those on the sales floor.

These sales and marketing staff were therefore forced to learn either via online means such as YouTube or using the vehicle manufacturer’s website. One employee stated that sometimes, they just resort to trial and error to see what the features of the vehicles were. That is what happens when you work for a leader who decides to hide important information from those in the team.

There are two ways that managers use to hide knowledge from their subordinates. In one way, the manager might employ evasive tactics such as deliberately giving incorrect or misleading information. In the other way, the manager might play dumb and act as is if he or she cannot answer a particular question from a subordinate.

Knowledge hiding might sound like something made up or something that occurs once in a blue moon. But the truth is that it is a far more common occurrence than we believe it is. As a matter of fact, knowledge hiding is so important that there is quite an impressive body of work done on it.

One of the studies done on leaders’ knowledge hiding was published in the February 2023 edition of The Service Industries Journal. What drew my attention to this article was the fact that the researchers sought for implications of a leader’s knowledge hiding behaviour to the quality of service of the organisation. Titled, “Leaders’ knowledge hiding and front-line employee service sabotage,” the study found that one of the implications of leaders’ knowledge hiding was employee service sabotage.

Service sabotage is said to occur when customer-handling employees deliberately act in such a way as to harmfully influence the service. Such acts could include retaliatory behaviour or deliberately varying the speed with which the customer is served. It could also include employees being mischievous towards customers, and showing frustration or hostility toward customers.

Withdrawal is another of the ways customer service employees handle leaders’ knowledge hiding. Such employees will still serve customers. However, they will do so with such an attitude that customers would immediately know that all is not well. The aloofness and standoffish attitude with which the service will be delivered will send signals to the customer to show that there is a problem somewhere.

Studies have shown that service sabotage is something that happens regularly in the workplace. According to the aforementioned study published in The Service Industries Journal, customer service employees justify their deliberate sabotage of the customer’s experience by moral disengagement. This is when employees convince themselves that there is actually nothing ethically wrong with what they are doing because the boss is also engaged in something unethical. In this case, the boss is being unethical by holding on to, or simply hiding, valuable knowledge from the employee.

It has even been found that when leaders withhold valuable information from customers, it makes it easier for employees to also resort to knowledge hiding from their colleagues. Although it is very difficult to justify why an employee will resort to service sabotage, it is a lot more understandable when one considers the stress the employee experiences when she has a manager who deliberately withholds important information.

The typical employee is expected to look up to the leader for inspiration and direction. Therefore, without that support, the employee is left to feel all alone. Nothing is more frustrating than being let down by someone you expect to offer you guidance. With such an appreciation, it would be pretty easy to see why such an employee will attempt to sabotage the service.

It is important to note that knowledge hiding by leaders is not about just pulling a prank or trying to make an employee look silly. It goes beyond that. It is not something to be treated lightly. There are studies that show that knowledge hiding results in huge losses for the business in question.

For instance, if an employee resorts to service sabotage which ultimately leads to the customer taking the business away, that would be a real loss to the business. It has been estimated that Fortune 500 companies annually lose about $31.5 billion due to knowledge hiding. That’s a lot of money to lose. Businesses, therefore, cannot let any instance of leaders’ knowledge hiding just go without any action being taken.

It is interesting that one of the findings of the aforementioned study was that when employees do not have very strong and positive relationships with their leaders, knowledge hiding does lead to moral disengagement and subsequently, service sabotage. What this means is that business leaders must ensure that they have very strong relationships with those in their team. When staff believe the boss is on their side, it is easier for the staff to justify some actions of the boss, even if that boss is deliberately hiding important information from those dealing with customers. It is every manager’s job to therefore maintain very strong relations with those in the team.

The pressure that comes with the increased competition as well as a more knowledgeable customer base means that the last thing a business needs a leader that does not know what he or she is up to. A leader whose actions and inactions leads to service sabotage is more of a danger to the business than the business’ fiercest competitor. Such leaders must either change their attitude or be kicked out of their positions as soon as possible. I can only pity customer service professionals who work under such leaders.

Woe to you when you are led by a leader who hides important and valuable knowledge from you. Of all front line professionals, you are to be most pitied on the market. Your competitors will be laughing all the way to the bank.

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