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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