151

I have a keen interest in learning new things about whatever technology I am using at work and then sharing my knowledge and experiences with colleagues.

One of my friends has repeatedly told me NOT to share knowledge with colleagues because this will give me competition in the subject-matter. He indicated that if the team lead wants to select a particular person for a task, I might be passed over for this project in favor of a colleague, who may have learned the subject-matter originally from me.

But from my point of view, having others besides me know the same subject matter makes a better, more productive working environment.

Will sharing knowledge create trouble for me at appraisal time if others gain an edge over me because of the new knowledge I gave them?

  • 198
    I'd say your friend must not be very good at what he does if he feels threatened by the skills of those around him. Personally I want the people around me to be better than me. It's the simplest way to become better yourself. – Joel Etherton Mar 4 '15 at 19:15
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    I second Joel's comment. Your friend's advice is suspect. Showing that you can share knowledge and help others grow is generally seen as a large plus by employers. – Raze Mar 4 '15 at 19:39
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    I third it - I'm a subject matter expert and a consultant. I'll happily teach someone all day and I also regularly share hints and tips over email with other consultants in my circle of contacts. It can also re affirm other people's belief that you know things! – Dan Mar 4 '15 at 20:42
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    You may also be passed over for a promotion if everyone knows you're the only holder of arcane knowledge they can't afford to train up a replacement. – skrrgwasme Mar 4 '15 at 21:52
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    If you are the only person who can perform certain tasks, then say hello to stress, long hours, and sleepless nights. I've been "indispensable" before, and wouldn't recommend it except maybe as a very short-term tactical career maneuver. – Aaronaught Mar 5 '15 at 4:52

12 Answers 12

187

Your friend is giving you some shaky advice. It's true that if the company is looking at major layoffs being the only one who can do X is really good for you. However keeping this to yourself means people in the company are less likely to know what this technology is capable of and won't suggest using your skills on interesting projects so it's less likely that X will become a critical aspect of the business. On top of that you gain visibility, people will see you as more valuable if you are increasing the productivity of those around you. The other benefit to telling others about it is that you learn it better yourself. Teaching others requires you to present these ideas in a clear way and be able to answer questions.

Share what you know your knowledge grows, your knowledge gains value, you gain visibility.

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    Also if you intentionally avoid cross training people and passing on knowledge you start to stick out as the person who "makes job security" as a manager, these are the first people I fire when it comes time for layoffs. (I'll deal with gaps in knowledge, I won't deal with lousy attitudes) – RualStorge Mar 4 '15 at 18:55
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    +1 for gaining visibility. Over the long term, being a source of knowledge pays dividends in terms of who is seen as a leader. Some people might try to take advantage of that, but they can't do that everytime. – teego1967 Mar 4 '15 at 19:40
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    I once heard from a wise man, "knowledge is the only thing that increases when you share it". From a practical point of view, I am in a similar situation. I needed to know something but nobody around me could help. So I got ahold of all the books and articles I could, I read and learned, and then told other people about it. And now it had exactly the opposite effect, people come to me for help and they recommend me to others. If anything I have become more indispensable. I love reading, learning, and sharing new things with others. – Fixed Point Mar 4 '15 at 22:37
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    @FixedPoint Many things increase when spread, but you do have a good point. – Mast Mar 5 '15 at 9:18
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    Another reason to share knowledge is to avoid becoming so essential that you cannot be promoted. – majjam Mar 5 '15 at 12:41
91

Your friend's advice reveals his underlying assumptions about the workplace in general. He sees the workplace as a hostile environment where the survival strategy is to preserve indispensability. In this bleak view, colleagues are not co-workers - they are rivals for the scarce resource of job security.

So you must ask yourself - is your workplace such a hostile environment that you must adopt a siege mentality like your friend?

What motivates you to be there every day? If it is working with others to make something of value then you should be open with your contributions, which will make others better able to support the work of the company.

In many workplaces (apart from the highly specialized) it is your approach, rather than your cache of knowledge, which counts. If you aspire to lead, then you will need to be recognized for your intrinsic, transferable qualities, rather than the specialized knowledge you have gained.

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    Indeed, the mentality should be fitting the environment. Sharing knowledge in a hostile environment would do no good, not sharing it in a healthy environment wouldn't either. Most environments aren't as hostile as they seem! – Mast Mar 5 '15 at 9:14
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    @Mast to be fair working in a hostile environment at all is not good. If you find yourself in a place where you have to constantly watch your back it's going to seriously mess you up long term. (cause trust issues, antisocial behavior, anxiety, etc) – RualStorge Mar 6 '15 at 17:19
18

I would not want your friend working on my staff! An open sharing environment will get more done because you are able to build on each other's input and knowledge.

Another way to look at this... Do you want to forever be the only one that knows how to do those things? By training others, not only are you seen as a positive influence on the team, you are also building your replacement so you have the opportunity to take on something new yourself. If you want to stall your ability to advance follow your friends advice. He sounds insecure in his abilities and is unlikely to go far. I would expect others on the team to be reticent to help him if this is how he acts.

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    +1 for 'Do you want to forever be the only one that knows how to do those things?' – EleventhDoctor Mar 5 '15 at 8:36
13

This strategy is flawed in several ways:

  • If you make yourself indispensable at a task, you will have to keep doing it. Therefore, you can not be promoted. Do you really want to keep doing the very same entry level task until you retire?
  • Your coworkers will probably notice that you are not sharing, and stop sharing with you. This will prevent you from learning, adversely affecting your performance, and job security.
  • Your management will probably recognize your strategy, realize that it harms the business, and take countermeasures you may not like. In particular, they will prefer that others get new information, because they will share it, which benefits the business far more. Again, this prevents you from learning, adversely affecting your performance, and job security.
11

First of all, are you "sharing" knowledge or lecturing people? Make sure the attention is wanted. If somebody asks you for information, by all means explain a technology or method. Avoid making uninvited lectures, though.

Your colleague's idea of refusing to answer questions and hoarding information to get a competitive advantage over your co-workers is insane. If I had somebody like that working for me, I would deal with it by getting rid of him at the earliest opportunity.

6

Think about it this way - your colleague is either giving you good advice or bad advice. If he is giving you bad advice, then you shouldn't take it.

If he is giving you good advice, why? He should be advising himself not to share this piece of "valuable" knowledge about the workplace. So if the advice is good, you should ask why he is sharing it!

Historically, individuals have benefited from information hoarding. It is hard to see how it can benefit the organisation, and how one's career progresses is much more about how one builds one's professional network than about the deep technical skills one acquires.

Also bear in mind that there will be a cognitive bias on the answers you get on an information sharing forum. Why would people with views supporting your colleagues hang out in places like this?

  • 1
    Ha, nice paradox! The resolution is that the co-worker sharing his "knowledge" because he feels threatened by Ramesh helping everyone else be better. So it's better for him to share that one piece of "knowledge" than to sit there watching everyone else get better at their job than he is from Ramesh sharing so much. – David Richerby Mar 6 '15 at 8:56
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    He said this advice came from a friend, not necessarily a colleague. If it's not a coworker, there is no competition caused by sharing the advice: paradox avoided. – Geobits Mar 6 '15 at 16:16
5

Sometimes a team can be a group of people who actually go and work on individual projects. If this is strictly the case in your company, your friend may have a point. However, there will come a time when you and/or your friend will have to be involved with or take over someone else's project and you'll be in a much better position if they used the best practices.

Also, teaching others is a way to stretch your skills to a higher level. Superiors will recognize you as the person to go to with a question. Some will lie and claim the knowledge as their own. If they abuse the help you're giving them and try to take advantage of you, you can always stop helping them. They will be worse off in the long run.

I go through life believing that you're better off sharing, but I'm not stuck on some hypothetical island with limited resources. Even if one other person returns the favor, you're ahead of the game.

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    +1 for teaching as a way to stretch your skills; the process of teaching something you know is a great way to probe how well you actually know a topic and often causes you to notice things you overlooked or took for granted when merely applying the skill. – Dan Bryant Mar 4 '15 at 21:37
4

This ground doesn't seem to have considered that if you are good, and the knowledge you are sharing is worthwhile then two things are true:

  1. You are acquiring a reputation for being someone who knows things
  2. You are busy

Regarding 1, People do not judge someone who's telling someone else how to do things as dispensable; they regard them as the not-dispensable one, compared to the person they're actively training (after all, one of you clearly knows things the other one doesn't).

And if you're good at teaching other people, you will also acquire a reputation for being the person who the smart people go to when they get stuck. Reputation is transitive; if someone with a reputation for delivering says "Well, if I'm still stuck on this this afternoon, I'm going to go ask Ramesh", that gets your name out in a very positive context.

Regarding 2, there is literally an infinite amount of time that can be spent on any product. (even "Hello World" can check the system language and then pull your preferred greeting style from your mail client). By sharing knowledge, you give yourself time to work on all the other things that add value and will get you noticed.

Beyond these two points, the primary reason to share knowledge is because it encourages other people to share knowledge; at some point you're going to get stuck, and at that point you're going to want those walls to be down.

3

I recommend you document your knowledge for your own purposes. You can later determine whether you share the info with the business and your colleagues. In the near term, you reap the benefits of having a reference from a time when information was fresh in your mind. If your employer is about to go through some turmoil, you might find your documentation invaluable, either to them or to you. At some level, you can pass the message that you're just keeping personal notes, and not developing formal documentation for release.

Having your own set of notes/documentation can come in handy when creating "official" documentation, as you may have learned skills or tips/tricks that don't apply to the "official" practice but are very useful to you.

  • Sharing information via a wiki is another way to create 'informal' documentation. – EleventhDoctor Mar 5 '15 at 8:37
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    @JamesTaylor: While true, my experience is that nobody ever reads internal wikis, especially when they are mediawikis, and especially if they are not. However, writing wiki articles can be good for your performance reviews and references (and helps you improve your writing). – phresnel Mar 5 '15 at 12:02
  • @phresnel: Not entirely true. Companies that are very large, old, geographically distributed, or just have a strong "do it yourself" culture can make it very unlikely that you'll be able to obtain any answers just by asking your immediate neighbors or your manager. This makes some (but not necessarily extensive) documentation pretty important, otherwise nobody else will be able to benefit from your work and it will reflect poorly on you. But this definitely doesn't apply to 5-year-old dotcoms with a few hundred (or fewer) employees at one site. – Aaronaught Mar 8 '15 at 21:12
  • @Aaronaught: Actually, I did work for large, old and geographically distributed company, though it was less than 100 employees per site (worldwide about 15k), but (in the past) with a relatively strong remoting/homeoffice culture. Wikis remained mostly unused (yet I wrote them and got good reviews in that regard). Before that, I worked in the other extreme, in a 1 boss, 2 employees "company", the same. Not saying this is the same everywhere; just my own humble (4 companies) experience. In any case, great and readable code can make up for a lot of documentation within a development department. – phresnel Mar 9 '15 at 15:54
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    "Code is always up-to-date" - false. So very, very false. Have you never seen code that isn't used anywhere? Code that isn't tested? Code that seems to be inconsistent with the design requirements? Code for features that nobody uses anymore? You'd probably call this "messy code" and you'd be (sort of) right; the point is that code has essentially the same maintenance requirements as documentation. If you never prune or refactor, it's the same as not updating the docs. "Works as coded" means essentially nil. – Aaronaught Mar 11 '15 at 15:23
3

Your colleagues advice demonstrates a lot about his/her attitude at work and maybe the company culture as a whole.

They are essentially saying "Don't help others, because if they become better that makes you worse."

This is a mentality of scarcity. It is the same as a manager saying "What if we train our people and they leave?"

Of course the counter point to that is "What if we don't train them and they stay?".

Not sharing knowledge makes your company a significantly worse place to work. I would seek to find out if this idea permeates the whole company culture or if just your coworker feels this way. If everyone feels the same, you should put out your resume and find a new job.

1

One downside not discussed in other answers is that "sharing knowledge" isn't simply about the other people getting the knowledge - from the point of view of your manager/company, it's also about you spending time teaching. Which means you aren't spending your time doing your direct assigned work.

Of course, a better solution isn't to avoid sharing, but instead, to discuss with your manager and make such teaching a part of your officially assigned job description, with measurable objectives, and contributing to your year end results.

-2

If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

If you don't bring others you work with up to speed, you will also be holding yourself back.

You should be able to accomplish more as a team, than by yourself. If not, you need to find a new team.

You can accomplish a lot more if you are not worried about who gets the credit.

protected by Community Mar 6 '15 at 11:46

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