Dealing with Learning–Credibility Tension

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Alaric Bourgoin and Jean-François Harvey of HEC Montréal, Canada, who recently published the article, “Professional image under threat: Dealing with learning–credibility tension,” in Human Relations. Below they discuss the results and implications of their research.]

huma_71_2.coverHow does one learn and build credibility simultaneously? Today’s professionals often find themselves entering new organisations where they are expected to bring their knowledge to bear on shifting situations. Entering new settings generates uncertainty because knowledge is socially embedded and context-dependent, such that it may not be possible to simply transfer knowledge developed in a previous context and apply it to a new one. Despite this difficulty, professionals must project an image of competence to be regarded as experts, and preclude sceptical clients from withdrawing completely. Faced with an uncertain new setting, they may encounter a conflict between their professional image and their ability to fulfil their role. This challenge is faced by an increasing number of professionals and managers alike, who are no longer seeking linear careers and instead move in and out of complex projects on a regular basis.

To address this puzzle, Professors Alaric Bourgoin and Jean-François Harvey draw on data from 21 months of participant observation during consulting assignments, and interviews with 79 management consultants. They adopted an original method – auto-ethnography with an insider-outsider research team – insofar that Bourgoin worked as a consultant to collect first-hand data for almost two years, which was regularly discussed and analysed with Harvey. They gained an unparalleled access to the minutiae of the work practices and inner feelings of consultants repeatedly adjusting to new settings under high-pressure conditions from their clients.

The main finding of this research is the construct that Bourgoin and Harvey call “learning–credibility tension” – a discrepancy between a newcomer position that requires professionals to learn, and a role-based image that requires professionals to maintain their credibility as experts. The authors discovered that this tension is a salient and costly issue for professionals during organisational entry. Specifically, they find that consultants experience three threats to their professional image during interactions with clients: competency, acceptance, and productive threats. Whereas most recruits are given time for socialisation, and granted some trial-and-error leeway in the process, the high costs of consulting services ratchets up clients’ expectations with respect to practitioners’ capacity to solve complex problems, fit in the sociopolitical context of their firm, and create value for money within a few days through the assignment.

While consultants emphasise the pressures of learning–credibility tension, they also use three tactics to mitigate it: (1) crafting relevance, (2) crafting resonance and (3) crafting substance. Such tactics include back- and front-stage behaviour and allow professionals to keep face as experts while seeking the information they require to adjust to new settings. If performed successfully, the tactics allow consultants to reduce the anxiety associated with learning–credibility tension, and support their relationship with clients.

The study builds new theory in socialisation by bridging information needs and image concerns, revealing original tactics that are highly relevant to a wide variety of people. It also contributes to substantive debates on management consulting by relating insights from the sociology of professions to contemporary knowledge workers and overturning the critique of consultants as professionals of persuasion.

You can read  Professional image under threat: Dealing with learning–credibility tension from Human Relations free until the end of March by clicking here.

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This entry was posted in Human Resource Management, Teaching & Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , by Cynthia Nalevanko, Senior Editor, SAGE Publishing. Bookmark the permalink.

About Cynthia Nalevanko, Senior Editor, SAGE Publishing

Founded in 1965, SAGE is the world’s leading independent academic and professional publisher. Known for our commitment to quality and innovation, SAGE has helped inform and educate a global community of scholars, practitioners, researchers, and students across a broad range of subject areas. With over 1500 employees globally from principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC, and Melburne, our publishing program includes more than 1000 journals and over 900 books, reference works and databases a year in business, humanities, social sciences, science, technology and medicine. Believing passionately that engaged scholarship lies at the heart of any healthy society and that education is intrinsically valuable, SAGE aims to be the world’s leading independent academic and professional publisher. This means playing a creative role in society by disseminating teaching and research on a global scale, the cornerstones of which are good, long-term relationships, a focus on our markets, and an ability to combine quality and innovation. Leading authors, editors and societies should feel that SAGE is their natural home: we believe in meeting the range of their needs, and in publishing the best of their work. We are a growing company, and our financial success comes from thinking creatively about our markets and actively responding to the needs of our customers.

One thought on “Dealing with Learning–Credibility Tension

  1. Pingback: Dealing with Learning–Credibility Tension | Business and Management INK – Sen Sadece Işık Ol Aydınlat

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