Manager must show employees that hoarding knowledge won't bring job security

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Dear Joan:
I work with two people who both have been employed with the same company for over 15 years. Both of them are doing fairly technical work now with the company data system. They both started off in clerical/mail positions and have earned their jobs by on-the-job training and expert experience in this industry. However, they both have the same annoying habit.
 
When I ask them to show me how to do something – they wind up leaving out so much information that what they give me is completely senseless. I am the new manager and have no background in this company (but have 20 years of experience in data systems). While I’m flattered in their confidence in me to understand the without any training – it’s very non-productive. In fact, I have to go back and ask them questions over and over again. At some point they become very irritated because I don’t know how to do something that is obviously a simple task!
 
It’s obvious to me that both have no experience in training another person – and do not understand the concept of including all steps of a task – not just assume the other person knows it. It’s hard for me to point out how much information they do not give me – because I don’t know until after I’ve fallen on my face. Even then I don’t always get the complete information.
 
Frankly, I’d like nothing more than to let them do their jobs and just manage them – but I find they treat everyone in this manner – they are very contemptuous of anyone in the company who does not know how to do something they are so skilled at. I am very much aware that the attitude is – “He should know how to do that already – he’s been here 10 years!” or “She shouldn’t be asking us – she should be doing it herself – it’s her job!”
 
My take on the situation is that, no, the person asking for help does not know how to do the task – or they wouldn’t be asking. It comes as no shock to me that there are no regularly scheduled training sessions, or that many of the experienced people here still do not know how to pull a basic report from our data system. It also comes as no surprise that most people are afraid to ask for help because of the rude snappy answers.
 
Is there any one piece of advice you would give to me – to show them the error of their ways without causing their resentment?  
 
Answer:
It’s time to put a halt to their territorialism. No employee can be allowed to hoard knowledge and know how—it puts the organization at risk and hurts the productivity of other workers.
 
I’ve run across similar scenarios before: A long-time employee develops a niche and coworkers have to come to the person who has this special expertise. This “expert” feeds off of the power and control their knowledge gives them over their colleagues. Over time, it becomes dysfunctional if the expert feels smug and superior and contemptuous because their colleagues—some with bigger titles and more pay—have to come bowing and scraping to get information from the person. The person thinks it protects their job security but, in fact, the opposite is true. If management can’t force the person to make the information available to others, they hire a replacement, move them to new work, or hire an outside firm to get at the information from the outside because they are a risk to the organization.
 
This is just plain bad business. What if they quit? What if they are messing with the system and no one else knows what they are doing? They are a barrier to productivity if people are afraid to ask them to pull reports off the system. And at the very least, “rude and snappy” behavior can’t be tolerated.
 
I recommend a straightforward conversation with them that sets some new expectations. Recognize their expertise and explain to them that they will provide more value and productivity to the organization if they share their knowledge and teach others. Tell them this is so important they will be evaluated on this as well as on new standards of cooperative customer service. Explain that you will gather input from their inside customers before you do their performance reviews. If they are resentful don’t back off. They have used their nasty behavior successfully before—don’t fall for it. You have a responsibility to the organization.
 
I recommend that you have one or both develop and conduct training on how to use the system. Start small, with a case-based mini-course on how to pull a simple report. Make the course hands on, so after a demonstration the learners have to actually pull a report. This way they can’t skip over important details. After that initial course, start offering similar courses, using different cases.
 
Build the training responsibilities into their job descriptions and make it a significant part of their performance review. If they aren’t good trainers, hire one of your outside computer vendors, who will have to come in and extract the information. If there is resistance don’t be afraid to get firm and insistent. Tell them that it is vital to productivity. If there is persistent resistance or sabotage, use progressive discipline and remove one or both if necessary.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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