The Latest Workplace Challenge: ‘Quiet Constraint’

James Micklethwait, VP at Kahoot!
© AdobeStock
Employees are increasingly withholding information at work, says James Micklethwait, VP at Kahoot! Here’s how to address the issue.

“Quiet constraint”—the practice of withholding valuable information from coworkers and managers in the workplace—is the latest headache for employers.

So says James Micklethwait, a vice president at Kahoot! At Work. Micklethwait shares what HR leaders can do about this problem, growing particularly among remote and hybrid workplaces.

Why does HR need expanded awareness on this “under-the-radar” workforce issue?

A recent U.S. Workplace Culture report commissioned by Kahoot! found that 58 percent of employees admitted to deliberately holding onto knowledge or information that could benefit coworkers. This trend was most prevalent in Generation Z, at 77 percent.

This under-the-radar issue should be alarming to employers because employees have lots of knowledge that is crucial for your organization and their colleagues. Additionally, sharing knowledge helps them connect, perform better and become stronger as professionals. Interestingly, Kahoot!’s data revealed that most employees are eager to share knowledge if given the opportunity and resources. This is a signal to HR teams that quiet constraint needs to be addressed. 

What’s driving quiet constraint at work?

There are likely many reasons why so many employees have yet to contribute all the valuable knowledge they can to their team. Many companies have still not optimized their virtual employee experiences, as Kahoot!’s data shows that online training is the No. 1 place where employees say they disengage, followed by virtual presentations and team meetings. With many people now working remotely or hybrid, many employees and teams just haven’t figured out how to connect the way they need to. 

When asked why they haven’t shared their knowledge with coworkers, employees pointed to similar issues. First, employees cited the need for enablement, with 26 percent saying they have never been asked to share, and 23 percent saying their employer doesn’t provide them with a channel or means to do so.

Barriers in workplace culture were also a major sticking point, with 26 percent saying they feel their talent and self-expression is stifled at work, and 22 percent saying they don’t feel valued at work and that their employer underestimates their knowledge and capabilities. 

Lastly, a smaller but still significant portion of employees say they withhold knowledge deliberately. Sixteen percent say they do this because they don’t want their coworkers to gain a competitive edge, and 13 percent say they don’t want to proactively help others unless they have an incentive. This again points back to the need to foster a connected workplace culture where people recognize collaborative learning as a win-win.

How is quiet constraint hurting companies and cultures?

Ultimately, a company’s secret sauce is their employees—their talent, creativity and specialized skills and knowledge. But when employees and teams are disconnected, it often leaves employees who have this knowledge overburdened and those without it in the dark. Teams that aren’t operating on the same playbook would find it challenging to work efficiently and create consistency, and even more so to truly reach their potential for creativity and problem-solving.

What are three proactive strategies that HR can implement to lessen or alleviate quiet constraint in their workforces?

The good news is that regardless of how large or small a company is, solutions to address quiet constraint are achievable for most workplaces. Consider implementing these key strategies to reconnect and energize your workforce:

Be a knowledge treasure hunter. While your workplace may be bursting with knowledgeable and talented individuals, many may not even realize that a particular skill or knowledge set is in-demand at work. Team leaders are in a position to spot when employees show special knowledge or skills that others may find helpful. Get into the practice of scouting for this, and uplift those team members to share what they know with the rest of the group.

Also, consider offering greater incentives for employees to share starting with special recognition. Employee recognition is key to creating a fully tuned-in workforce, as employees who say they get the right amount of recognition are four times as likely to be engaged at work.

Carve out collaboration time. According to Kahoot!’s report, 77 percent of employees would highly value an easy and engaging way to share knowledge with their coworkers. Employees want to help their colleagues succeed, but say they weren’t given the opportunity, space or support. 

The clear solution would be to schedule regular times dedicated to collaborative learning and working. This can take a variety of forms. When you have more time to commit to this goal, you can explore events from hackathons to open brainstorming sessions, peer learning with employee-led presentations or even knowledge competitions. During your regular workdays, you can also raise the bar in team meetings, all-hands updates and other check-ins, replacing low value agenda items with collaboration and interactive knowledge sharing.

Add a healthy dose of friendly competition. Friendly competition is an excellent motivator for employees to fully engage with each other—in fact, it was Gen Z’s top choice to help them feel more engaged in virtual training, meetings and presentations. Not only does this bring employees closer together, which is key to encouraging informal knowledge sharing, it’s also a great way to uncover hidden talents and expertise, as employees are motivated to use all they know to win.

Moreover, by framing the learning experience as a game, employees will likely be much more eager to volunteer to host these sessions. Instead of asking employees to formally train their team, which they may find daunting, invite them to challenge their coworkers to a “knowledge bowl.” This makes it possible for both the employee sharing their knowledge and the competition winners to become workplace heroes.

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