As a society, we are collectively fascinated with the phenomenon of hoarding — so much so that there's an entire television series dedicated to helping people dig out of their self-imposed prisons. The root cause stems from a psychological inability to let go of seemingly inconsequential possessions tied to a single or series of past-traumatic events — a remnant of our reptilian brain's fight-or-flight response.  

Cleaning operations are no different. In fact, a common thread reaching through cleaning operations is not only the hoarding of tools, equipment and materials, but also a hoarding of knowledge.  

It's not unusual for workers and even managers to gather, guard and otherwise act as gatekeepers for the best tools. However, in a more subtle and inadvertent way, they will often do the same with important operational, training or institutional knowledge.  

Knowledge hoarding can, and often does, have long-lasting impacts on cleaning operations. Believe it or not, this hoarding is not always done with malicious intent. Instead, it's a response to a trauma or something that previously happened in the workplace. Furthermore, people may not even realize that they're the culprit. 

While much of the research on this subject is still emerging, early findings seem to point to three main reasons people hoard knowledge in the workplace. The primary root of knowledge hoarding behavior is fear: fear of not having the correct answer, fear of losing stature in the organization, or fear of being left behind by the organization.  

In some cases, instead of sharing knowledge, people will use it as leverage. They may feel protected from being let go, or they may feel it gives them a better opportunity to climb the ranks. 

Finally, people might hoard knowledge as a method of control. As anyone who has worked in a custodial operation will tell you, accolades are sometimes hard to come by. If knowledge is hidden, it may be because the individual feels, or has felt, slighted in the past.  

Remedy the Problem 

I've said it many times: the demographics in cleaning operation leadership are beginning to shift. Many who have made careers out of running a cleaning department are now preparing to retire. As a result, a new, younger demographic of managers has begun to emerge.  

These new managers often bring an excellent managerial skill set. However, they come in flying blind as to the complexities of understanding custodial operations. In many cases, they're also inheriting the result of hoarded knowledge and must come up with their own solutions independently. 

One of the best ways to remedy the issue of historical knowledge hoarding is to encourage a more collaborative culture. A favorite exercise of mine starts with gathering a group of managers together and having them teach me something they love about the job. It is a non-threatening way to encourage people to come out of their shells and share.  

I also encourage people to extend this exercise beyond the walls of their buildings. Where do your peers go to learn professional skills? Who teaches them? What are the results? How can we benchmark those results between our organizations? What can we bring back to our operations that will be repeatable? 

Identifying knowledge-hoarding behavior can be simple, but may need a delicate touch to correct. Being receptive to collaboration and keeping lines of communication open can help you break up the resistance in your operation. It's always an opportunity to learn something new, and ultimately hoarders of knowledge typically want to be seen and understood.