Knowledge is Power, But How Do You Use It?

With great power comes great responsibility.
Uncle Ben, Spider-Man

It’s more or less a truism in the workplace that “knowledge is power.” Knowledge can take many forms, depending on the nature of the work, from hands-on skills to institutional knowledge to having a list of contacts of people who can get things done. All of those are attributes worth cultivating, and often your particular skill set–powers, if you will–are what got you hired in the first place.

The challenge with any sort of power, of course, is what you intend to do with it. There are a couple schools of thought on this. One theory is…

Knowledge = Power = Job Security

If you hold this view, it usually means you’re keeping your magic powers or secret sauce to yourself. You might enjoy the feeling of being special because people have to come to you to get certain things done. You might feel that the specific knowledge you have takes too long to explain or to train someone properly so everyone’s better off if you just keep doing what you’re doing. Perhaps you think that by being the only one capable of doing X, that means you have job security because the organization cannot afford to replace you. You might, if you’re feeling particularly arrogant about your situation, feel that you can hold a leader or a company “over a barrel” because you’re The Only One Who Can Do It.

In my mind, there are a few things wrong with this approach.

The down sides of being The Only One Who Can Do Something

From a purely selfish point of view, taking a vacation become problematic. Say you don’t want to be disturbed on your holiday but suddenly That Thing You Do must be done, and so you risk getting a work call during your time off. A similar problem can creep up if you’re ever sick.

Another potential downside to being The Only One Who Can Do X is that you might get tired of doing X. It might be the least-favorite part of your job, but you’re the one people rely on to do it well.

On the other hand, if you like having people come to you and beg you to Do That Thing You Do, that might make your ego expand a bit, but it gets wearisome to your coworkers. If you get really obnoxious, your leadership might throw you out the door despite you having X knowledge simply because your attitude is not worth the aggravation. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen. The organization might stumble for a while until some lucky soul gets to learn the process, but life will go on even when the Guy/Gal Who Knows How to Do X is gone.

The Hit-By-A-Bus Theory of Knowledge Possession

Early on in my bureaucratic career, I learned that it sucked being the only one who knew something. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy or because I hate repeating myself. Regardless, out of my streak of inner selfishness I found an alternative approach to handling my knowledge.

I share it.

If there was a thing people asked me to do that was a) not necessarily in my job description and b) well within the capabilities of someone without an English degree, I started training people on how to do what I do. My theory was to ask, “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, will anyone else know or be able to do what I do?” If the answer was no, I started writing down my processes or Deep Knowledge so that other people could use it.

The advantages of sharing your knowledge

Regardless of your motives (I’m lazy and don’t like getting called from work on my day off, for example), sharing your knowledge patiently with your coworkers in person or via instructional document pays off in the long run because:

  • You eliminate what engineers call a “single point of failure.”
  • The world doesn’t come grinding to a halt just because Mr./Ms. Miracle Worker isn’t there to Do That Thing.
  • If someone else doesn’t know how to do it, there’s a set of instructions somewhere–posted in a public, shared location–so someone else can learn how.
  • You can develop a habit and reputation for being not only smart, but helpful…maybe even nice.

So to close off this line of discussion, if you find yourself in a situation where a lot of people are coming to you because you learned how to do something useful, find some way to share that information with your peers, leaders, or customers. You might find that sharing what you know is more enjoyable and worthwhile than keeping it to yourself.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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