Feel Like Sharing? How Emotion Affects Knowledge Seeking and Sharing

People talking in a group setting; Walton Insights Article: "Feel Like Sharing? How Emotion Affects Knowledge Seeking and Sharing" by Jack Travis with research by Rajiv Sabherwal
August 8 , 2023  |  By Jack Travis, Rajiv Sabherwal

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Why do people feel the need to share their favorite recipes and make book recommendations and comment on the best ways to build a garden? And why do friends commiserate with each other after breakups or layoffs? In either case, the way you feel almost seems to force you to share what you know with the people around you — whether it’s about cooking or job searching. And the knowledge you share in these conversations can deeply impact everybody involved. 

Knowledge, as justified beliefs about relationships of interest (such as between interest rates and stock prices), is based on information – both knowledge and information are powerful tools employees and managers can utilize when making choices for an organization. In “Knowledge sharing, knowledge seeking, and emotions: A longitudinal study of hospital restructuring decision making,” Rajiv Sabherwal, Yolande E. Chan, Rashmi Krishnamurthy and Janelle Mann uncover ways managers can use emotions and knowledge-seeking behaviors to improve lengthy decision-making processes. 

Knowledge Management

An indicator of an efficient business can be how well its managers capture, store and share the company’s collective knowledge with employees and stakeholders, according to Starmind. Effective knowledge control and leveraging drives an organization’s growth, fosters healthy competition, promotes value creation, improves performance and sparks innovation. 

Controlling and manipulating the transfer of an abstract concept like knowledge sounds difficult. In order to understand this, let’s consider the two broad types of knowledge: explicit and tacit. An expert can share explicit and tacit knowledge with a novice in very different ways. Explicit knowledge can be shared just like information, such as through employee handbooks and signs on the wall. They come directly from managers to subordinates with little to no discourse. Another example of sharing explicit knowledge and information is providing someone a recipe including cooking instructions. 

On the other hand, tacit knowledge is in the expert’s mind. Therefore, sharing tacit knowledge is difficult and involves interactions with in-depth communication and steady interplay between the expert and the novice. It occurs on a personal level, and involves paying attention to the expert’s words, gestures, tone of voice, and body language. Employees, managers and patrons can all verbally and nonverbally engage in tacit communication through conversations, mentorships, and observation. Sharing tacit cooking knowledge with another person to help him become a better chef would involve observation and mentoring, including cooking together, over time.  

Researchers refer to the transfer and search for knowledge as knowledge sharing and knowledge seeking. Someone who is sharing knowledge gives information about tasks and know-how to others to address a problem or fulfill a goal. Knowledge seeking requires finding relevant knowledge from those around you, including experts, to learn more about a task or concept to remove surrounding doubts. 

By effectively gathering and sharing knowledge and encouraging both seeking and sharing, organizations allow for a culture of collaboration. Employees and organization stakeholders can access multiple levels of information that enhance their work and thought processes. When managers facilitate and promote knowledge sharing and seeking, employee performance and decision-making skills improve. 

Organizational Decision Making 

Deciding how to go about long-term processes, such as containing costs, company expansion or creating new products is an endlessly stressful and delicate task.  Recently, an increasing number of businesses have relied on contracting external organizations to influence long-term, expensive decisions. The trend, known as “crowdsourcing,” has proven to yield benefits.  By crowdsourcing, companies can access and incorporate diverse opinions and knowledge.  

Besides external consulting firms, businesses have also sought the advice of groups comprised of current internal employees or company stakeholders. Throughout their research, Sabherwal, Chan, Krishnamurthy and Mann observed a Canadian hospital that created a citizen advisory panel (CAP) to accumulate community input while restructuring programs and services.  

CAP members were randomly selected based on a civic lottery system. Panelists included people of varying incomes, ages, leadership roles and genders. Members of the panel also utilized healthcare at differing rates so that the sample group accurately represented the local community. 

The researchers conducted one survey before the first CAP session, one survey at the end of each session, an initial follow-up survey one month after the last session, and a second survey three months after the last session. They were able to examine how emotions, knowledge management and knowledge within the group meetings affected knowledge-sharing intention and subsequent knowledge-seeking behaviors beyond the sessions. 

How a person feels plays a large part in knowledge-based behavior. When people are put together in a committee, they heavily engage in knowledge sharing, both inside group meetings and in conversations outside of a group context. Prior knowledge and perceived confidence encourage members to share and seek knowledge beyond their group.  If organizations utilized group emotions, managers could potentially maximize group performance and decision-making and therefore enhance their business. 

Surprisingly, enthusiasm and anxiety positively affected knowledge sharing and seeking intentions in the CAP. When the members felt excited or worried, they shared relative information, inside and outside of the group, according to the surveys. The amount of information the CAP received about the project also contributed to knowledge sharing. When the members had a strong grasp of the information or when they felt their understanding was lacking, knowledge-based behavior increased. Furthermore, when knowledge sharing and seeking intentions increased within the group, they also frequently occurred outside of the group context. 

Creating Cognitive Culture Benefits 

This study expands our understanding of how cognitive culture operates in the workplace. The cognitive culture of a company is the sum of the norms, values, and assumptions its employees and managers share. Cognitive culture provides a basis for how people think and behave while they’re working and can affect how team-oriented employees feel.  

By identifying specific environmental or interpersonal factors that stimulate knowledge sharing within groups, workplace managers can create the most effective workplace possible. Companies crowd-sourcing external opinions now know how to maximize the output and boost productivity. 

The results of Sabherwal, Chan, Krishnamurthy, and Mann’s study highlight the effect positive and negative emotions have on knowledge-based behaviors. Considering how much emotions affect decision-making, managers would benefit from paying close attention to how individuals feel about their participation in the decision-making process.  

Long-term processes, such as restructuring a hospital, are extremely time-consuming and expensive. Companies should thus understand the consequences of how they’re distributing information. By fostering a culture of knowledge seeking and sharing, executives could potentially produce better results and save their organization money.  

Rajiv SabherwalRajiv Sabherwal is a Distinguished Professor, Edwin & Karlee Bradberry Chair, and the chair of the Department of Information Systems in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at University of Arkansas. He has published on the management, use and impacts of information technology and knowledge in Information Systems Research, MIS Quarterly, Management Science, Organization Science, Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of AIS, Decision Sciences and other journals. He is a Fellow of IEEE, a Fellow of the Association of Information Systems and a Ph.D. from University of Pittsburgh.