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Research Brief: Knowledge Sharing Under the Gun

When the pressure’s on at work, how can you get a competitive colleague to share his or her expertise?


We’ve all experienced it: you’re up against a deadline at work and a colleague asks for help. What do you do: interrupt your work and lend a hand or let your competitive nature kick in and say, Sorry, bud, too busy? 

It’s a scenario that is increasingly prevalent, as time pressures ratchet up and firms push employees to share knowledge among themselves.

Trying to learn more about this phenomenon, researchers have tended to focus on how workers’ attitudes and behaviours contribute to knowledge sharing and how these factors are affected by organizational culture and management support. In this study, researchers zero in on the influence of situational factors (time pressure, perceived competition) and individual factors (self-efficacy, level of competitiveness). 


The study was conducted with 403 university students who completed a problem-solving exercise and who were permitted — but not required — to respond to requests for knowledge from people who were doing the same activity.


  • Perceptions of time pressure affected people’s likelihood of engaging in knowledge sharing behaviours. 
  • Some people, given competitive situations, felt strong time pressure and thus felt “too busy” to share knowledge.
  • People who demonstrate higher levels of competitiveness were more likely to perceive competition in their environment. Higher self-efficacy (defined as an individual’s assessment of how well he or she can execute required actions) was related to lower perceptions of time pressure.
  • Perceived competition was not directly related to knowledge sharing.


For people seeking information from busy colleagues, the researchers suggest emphasizing how quickly it can be shared. “For example, they may demonstrate their current level of expertise by phrasing their question carefully and avoiding downplaying their current level of knowledge in an attempt to flatter their more knowledgeable colleague,” they write. Good: I notice that the new guidelines have come out regarding conference travel. Is the change to subsection 6.3 the only one that applies to us? Bad: I can’t make heads or tails of the new guidelines! Can you help me with my reimbursement request?

As well, ask targeted questions so that the knowledge sharer only needs to provide a brief answer without detailed context. 

Managers seeking to promote knowledge sharing among their employees should consider building in more breaks and unstructured social time to reduce time pressures. They can also explain to subordinates “how knowledge sharing may save time in the long run, as employees may no longer need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when they benefit from their colleagues’ expertise,” the researchers note. 


Title‘I’m busy (and competitive)!’ Antecedents of knowledge sharing under pressure
Authors: Catherine E. Connelly (DeGroote School of Business); Dianne P. Ford (Memorial University); Ofir Turel (California State University); Brent Gallupe (Queen’s School of Business); and David Zweig (University of Toronto)

PublishedKnowledge Management Research & Practice (2014, 12, 74-85)

— Alan Morantz


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