Knowledge Sharing: Leveraging Trust and Leadership to Increase Team Performance

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Knowledge Sharing: Leveraging Trust and Leadership to Increase Team Performance

Introduction & Overview

February, 2011 by Sarah Ketvirtis (MSLOC Student)

The value of knowledge sharing to an organization is well known, yet much of the knowledge within an organization remains unshared. This article focuses on the critical role that the leader of a team plays in facilitating knowledge sharing within a team. It looks at the role of leadership and trust in knowledge sharing and makes recommendations that can be used to increase knowledge sharing within organizational teams. LOC professionals can utilize these recommendations to help organizations enhance team performance and strengthen their competitive advantage by leveraging the collective knowledge of a team.

Team Knowledge Sharing as a Competitive Advantage

Knowledge Sharing Defined

Knowledge sharing is a critical component of knowledge management. Knowledge management is generally referred to as the way an organization creates, retains and shares knowledge. Knowledge sharing is the process by which individuals exchange tacit and explicit knowledge in order to create new knowledge (Van den Hooff & De Ridder, 2004). Knowledge sharing can occur between individuals, within teams and across the organization. Research supports the idea that cognitive resources available within a team will be underutilized if knowledge is not shared (Argote, 1999). Therefore knowledge sharing is a critical team process that involves members interacting to share ideas, information, and suggestions relevant to the team's task at hand (Srivastava, Bartol, & Locke, 2006).

Organizational Value of Team Knowledge Sharing

In an increasingly competitive business environment organizations must develop capabilities that will provide them with a sustainable competitive advantage. These capabilities must be unique such that other organizations cannot copy or imitate them (Jones & George, 1998). The degree to which an organization creates new products, services and processes better and faster than its competitors is dependent on knowledge sharing practices (Almahamid, Awwad, & McAdams, 2010). Knowledge sharing enables organizations to develop skills and competencies, increase value and sustain their competitive advantage. Knowledge embodies intangible assets, routines and creative processes that are difficult to imitate and as such is a firm’s most valuable resource (Renzl, 2008).

Team Knowledge Sharing

Accordingly, one source of competitive advantage for an organization is the capability of teams to produce superior results based on the knowledge that is embedded in the interactions among team members (Amit & Schoemaker, 1993; Prahalad & Hamel, 1990). Srivastava et al. (2006) state that knowledge sharing in teams has lead to enhanced performance. By engaging in the knowledge sharing process teams create a new unique knowledge resource that competitors cannot easily imitate. Knowledge sharing leads to superior team performance and is a source of competitive advantage for organizations.

Factors that Impact Knowledge Sharing in Teams

Literature indicates that there are a variety of factors that influence knowledge sharing in teams. Some of the factors include personality traits, communication styles, trust, interpersonal attitudes, leadership, diversity of expertise and team size. Two factors that the literature has examined extensively on multiple dimensions are trust and leadership. Research has found that leadership and trust have a positive direct impact on team knowledge sharing (Lee, Gillespie, Mann, & Wearing, 2010).


Trust is an important ingredient to successfully creating, sharing and applying knowledge in teams. Trust in teams becomes important when a team process, like knowledge sharing, requires interdependence, information sharing and collaboration. Research shows that these processes are very sensitive to the quality of interpersonal trust relationships (Zand, 1972). When teams collaborate and share information openly, vulnerabilities often surface. Accordingly, when members of teams become vulnerable to one another, risk increases and trust becomes important (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995). Trust Leadership

A trusting person will openly exchange useful ideas, collaborate, accept influence and impose relatively little control. On the other hand, when a teammate discovers evidence that leads them to believe they are not trusted they conceal information, reject influence and try to take control (Gillespie & Mann, 2005). Therefore trust needs to be present to enable knowledge sharing behaviors. Trust is particularly important when examining the role of a team leader related to knowledge sharing in teams because an individual’s belief about how honest, reliable and trustworthy their team leader is has a direct influence on the individual’s willingness to disclose sensitive information and the extent to which they do so (Mayer et al., 1995).


Leadership and management are not synonymous. Leadership can be thought of as a relationship between the leader and those being led that can motivate a team or organization. A leader is able to influence individuals to accomplish a group or organizational goal (Thompson, 2008). A team leader, then, can have a large amount of influence on a team. The traditional task of the leader is to focus and coordinate the diverse viewpoints found on a team in order to achieve a common goal (Zárraga & Bonache, 2003). In addition, team leaders also serve as models by openly sharing information, trusting others, stepping into another’s shoes and providing constructive feedback.

Role of Team Leader in Knowledge Sharing

“Knowledge sharing does not happen automatically in a team, and the team’s leader has an important role to play in making it come about” (Srivastava et al., 2006, p. 1241). As such, the attitude that the team leader has about knowledge sharing is critical. A study of knowledge workers done by Karl Sveiby (2007) that analyzed the free text comments entered by 2,988 respondents, across 92 business units, in 12 companies found that respondents blame their nearest supervisor and senior executives for a lack of knowledge sharing. Yet only a few managers are perceived as resistant to knowledge sharing. The issue is in what they do not do; managers are perceived not to share what they know or encourage knowledge sharing behaviors of others. Literature suggests that managers and leaders who simply express a favorable opinion toward knowledge sharing are resented and seen as hypocritical. Accordingly, in order for knowledge sharing to occur, team leaders must actively encourage (Svieby, 2007) or facilitate it.

Recommendations for Facilitating Knowledge Sharing

Given the importance of trust and leadership in knowledge sharing, below are four recommendations that leaders should consider implementing to increase knowledge sharing and enhance performance within teams:


Create an Open Trusting Environment: Trust in another team member is directly related to the accuracy, relevance and completeness of information and knowledge shared as well as the acceptance of others' knowledge and influence (Zand, 1972). Team leaders who actively model knowledge sharing lead by example and demonstrate that the open and timely sharing of significant ideas and information is valuable for the team. Team members are likely to reciprocate by sharing their expertise and knowledge with the team as a result (Lee et al., 2010).

Engage in Participative decision making when possible: By engaging in participative decision making, a team leader provides more opportunities for members to share their ideas. When team members have a forum to give input it is more likely that they will influence decision making and thereby experience the importance/benefit of knowledge sharing (Srivastava et al., 2006). In addition to team members experiencing the value of knowledge sharing, it is likely that a better decision will result from the collective knowledge of the group when team members possess relevant knowledge not possessed by the team leader (Knight & Locke, 1997).

Agree on Expectations for Knowledge use: When individuals are uncertain about how information will be used (i.e. for individual benefit or for the benefit of the team) knowledge is not likely to flow freely (as cited in Jones & George, 1998). Ensuring that knowledge will be used for the greater good decreases knowledge hoarding and facilitates trust by agreeing to put the collective interest of the team first (Jones & George, 1998).

Recognize Individual Ideas and Contributions: Individuals are motivated to share their unique knowledge with one another when their leader treats them fairly and recognizes their input as valuable. Knowledge sharing will increase when team leaders recognize individuals for their contribution of ideas and information (Srivastava et al., 2006).

Case: Knowledge Sharing in Engineering Teams


Teams in the engineering department of a large Australian automotive company were responsible for developing specific vehicle components such as the body structure or door. Team members had varying levels of expertise. Tasks were complex, highly interdependent and non-routine. Team leaders actively provided and elicited expertise and knowledge to their teams. They shared candid insights and experiences, project concerns, personal thoughts as well as lessons learned. They also made it a point to facilitate opportunities for team members to share in a safe open environment. As members saw their team leader modeling this behavior they became willing to share information and ideas with one another. Team members began to feel safe to freely exchange their personal insights, concerns, issues and task-related knowledge. As a result, Team members interacted frequently to help one another produce technical drawings (i.e. explicit knowledge) and share ideas about how to build a new prototype (i.e. tacit knowledge) (Lee et al., 2010). As one of the team leaders surmised, "Knowledge sharing has positioned us well for the future...we know what each other's capabilities's like the one brain thinking together which leads to more efficient work...and we are actually very innovative and cost effective" (Lee et al., 2010, p. 484).


Knowledge sharing is critical to organizational success. It enhances team performance and provides an organization with a sustainable competitive advantage. Yet knowledge sharing does not always occur naturally. Team leaders play an important role in helping to facilitate knowledge sharing within teams by fostering an open trusting environment, leading by example, setting expectations, facilitating opportunities for team members to share ideas and recognizing the contributions of individuals team members.


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Contact Us

Master's in Learning & Organizational Change

1800 Sherman Avenue
Suite 3500
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/491-7376

The MSLOC staff are currently working remotely. Please email us with any questions about the program.