Why do people share?


Last fall, at an Intranet conference in Oslo, Norway, one of the speakers raised a very important question during his session: “Why do people share?”. I have been asking myself the same thing many times and written about it a few times, such as in this blog post from 2010: “Understanding the psychology of sharing – what makes it tick?”. So, I waited eagerly during the presentation to hear what he had to say about it, hoping for some new insights and perhaps an interesting discussion among the audience after the session. But to my big disappointment he never returned to the question to answer it.

Immediately after the presentation I did some more research on this subject and created a draft blog post (this one), but for some reason I forgot to post it on my blog. Better late than never.

Sharing is giving

In “Stop Spreading Viruses & Start Giving Gifts”, Ivan Askwith writes that when consumers share something with other consumers, they do it for their own reasons. They might want to help a friend, but when they share they also tell something about themselves and the recipient: “I want you to understand that I found this interesting, and believe you will too.”

If is feasible to assume that the same psychology applies when we share things such as information, ideas and experiences with colleagues at work. The act of sharing something tells our colleagues something about us and that we think and care about what they might be interested in. If what we share is relevant and valuable to them, they will understand that we have really tried to understand what their needs and interests are. Their trust in us grows. They might trust us enough to share something back or help us out in other ways. We build relationships by helping each other. When work is interdependent this is invaluable. A culture of sharing will impact both our performance as individuals and as organizations.

According to Askwith, we have to remember that a gift is a gift. When giving a gift we can’t ask for favors in return. It will just make us seem selfish and manipulative. We need to share with an honest intention to help, with no strings attached.

Reputation is a key motivator

In the MIT Sloan Management Review article “How Reputation Affects Knowledge Sharing Among Colleagues”, Prescott C. Ensign and Louis Hébert shares the findings from their research on how reputation affects knowledge sharing among colleagues:
“Reputation plays a role in interpersonal sharing of individually controlled knowledge in two ways. First, the motivations of two R&D workers may not be compatible even though they both work for the same organization. As a result, how one worker perceives the other may be the deciding factor in a decision to offer information. Reputation also plays a role where rules or systems are unable to spur sharing. Because critical information is often held privately by individuals, workers often can choose to share or withhold such information in their interactions with colleagues without fear of sanction. That leaves reputation as a key motivator in any decision to share or withhold information.”
Reputation is basically what people think of you. It is based on a social evaluation according to some criteria, and which criteria are used depend on context or group of people. In some cultures a strong criteria for building reputation can be to willingly and openly share your knowledge and information with anyone who might have a need for it. In other (more competitive) cultures being perceived as a knowledgeable expert can be a more important criteria for building one’s reputation, thereby making people more prone to keep information and their knowledge to themselves in order to maintain their status. In organizations where multiple cultures exist, this would likely make sharing across organizational units and locations more complex.

We seek emotional communition

In the New York Times science article “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome”, author John Tuerney describes how researchers at the University of Pennsylvania spent 6 months studying the most e-mailed articles from New York Times. The researches found that people preferred to share long positive articles on intellectually challenging and engaging topics, especially such that inspired awe. Furthermore, surprising and emotional articles were more likely to be shared.

In the interview, the researches refer to classic economical utility theory which suggests that people share things of practical value in hope that the recipients will return the favor, so why share science articles? According to the researchers, showing off doesn’t seem to be the most likely reason; “…in general, people who share this kind of article seem to have loftier motives than trying to impress their friends. They’re seeking emotional communion”.

What we share matters

Nancy Dixon asks the same question as I do in this blog post: “What causes people to be willing to share their knowledge with others?”. In her blog post “The Incentive Question or Why People Share Knowledge” she refers to a frequently cited study on knowledge sharing conducted by Constant, Kiesler and Sproull.
“One of their findings was that employees differentiated two kinds of knowledge sharing. One type was sharing products, for example, computer programs, or reports they had written. The second type of knowledge was what employees had learned from their own experience, for example, how to get around a certain bottle-neck in the system, or how to deal with a particularly tricky bug in a program. This second type of knowledge they regard as part of their identity – part of who they were as professionals.
They were willing to share both kinds of knowledge, but the motivation for sharing each differed greatly. The documents and programs they shared because they considered them the property of the company. But the second kind, their experiential knowledge, they shared because they gained some personal benefit from doing so. The personal benefit, however, was not money or the promise of a promotion. According to the study, “Experts will want to contribute to coworkers who need them, who will hear them, who will respect them and who may even thank them.”
Nancy concludes that earning the respect and recognition of our peers is the primary driver for sharing experiential knowledge:
“Recognition means the most to us when it comes from those who really know the subject – who know what they’re talking about…Because our knowledge is so closely tied to our identity, it’s very important to each of us that our peers view us as knowledgeable and skillful.”
Nancy ends her blog post with a very question that I also want to leave you with:
“Rather than management asking, How do we incentivise people to share their knowledge? It would be more useful for management to ask, How do we develop relationships across the organization that will set in motion more knowledge sharing?”
By Oscar Berg at 1:09 PM
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Ande GregsonSeptember 19, 2012 12:00 PM
Great post Oscar thanks for sharing


The Learning CrucibleSeptember 19, 2012 2:52 PM
Great post, exploring an interesting question. I share a lot with colleagues at work, hoping to encourage more sharing between the group. I’ve never considered too deeply why I share so much but the bit about emotional communion really resonated with me. I’ve always sought deep connection with a few people rather than superficial discourse with many acquaintances. Perhaps that explains why people prefer to share long, positive articles on intellectually challenging and engaging topics. I also feel obliged to share knowledge because, apart from my reflections on personal experiences, it is not for me or anyone else to own so I feel duty bound to pass it on.


jairo rojasSeptember 21, 2012 11:28 AM
The multicultural issue is a very interesting one. I was born Colombian and since 74 have lived in 8 countries 8yrs Sweden, 2yrs Usa, 3yrs South Africa, and now over 20 in the UK to name a few, but when I share information I have to be mindful of the content so that the reader who knows me may not quickly conclude that I am in favour of all their stereotypes they have about Colombians or just dismiss them as what does he know? Now don’t take me wrong, I share a lot and nothing stops me from sharing, but there are issues that I need to be very careful about not to cause the wrong reaction. I am also a very happy citizen of the UK and of the world but having lived in so many countries and travelled in business to over 130 has made me very aware of the beauty of multicultural interaction. Oscar I think your article has trigger a new project to research sharing and cultures. Thanks.

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