Take it from the experts: how consultants overcome impostor syndrome

By David Donaldson

Thursday August 27, 2020

Adobe

Suffering from impostor syndrome in your new job? Consultants’ efforts to navigate their permanent outsider status offer some lessons.

Consultants’ periodic moves between clients means they regularly face a more acute version of the problem everyone deals with in a new job: how to learn as much as possible without giving the impression you have no idea what you’re doing.

There’s the added pressure that not only are consultants meant to be the experts, but they also face clients anxious to justify large fees.

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This strange dynamic causes many to endure perennial impostor syndrome — something that suits consulting firms quite well, pushing staff to work hard to prove themselves.

But as the problem of balancing learning and credibility is a core part of their work, consultants tend to have well-developed strategies for dealing with it, notes an interesting study.

The paper’s authors, Alaric Bourguin and Jean-François Harvey, draw on two years of direct observation and interviews with 79 management consultants to consider how they balance what they call learning-credibility tension. One consultant told them:

“We are supposed to be the one telling them what to do, yet often you will see that it’s the other way around … It’s a very tricky position.

“… If we ask too many questions and we act like recording machines, we won’t get far either. But if we show ignorance, they may stop taking us seriously. Either way we are in trouble. [Laughs].”

Said another:

“It’s exhausting, you know, day after day, to always have to be right, to be the good guy and to create value for the client … Clients expect you to know everything about everything, but it’s impossible, I mean physically impossible. This is why many consultants give up … You feel a tension that is always there with you on the job.”

The challenges consultants face

There are three ‘threats’ consultants face when managing learning-credibility tension, according to Bourguin and Harvey: competence, acceptance and productivity.

Competence

Questions around competence can easily come to the fore when a consultant trips over new technical content, for example, undermining their image as a competent professional.

But there are plenty of other, more subtle landmines that can detract from that image: even experienced and technically brilliant outsiders will need to learn about the unique context of the organisation to understand what staff see as competence.

Acceptance

Consultants need to be accepted by the client for a productive relationship to develop. Making this happen requires good observation skills to build an understanding of the social dynamics of the organisation. In the words of one of the interviewees:

“You always run the risk of being antagonised by clients because your comments seem out of place … You know, maybe you haven’t used the proper word or taken into account someone’s sensitivity on a subject, and they cut you down to size … Like, ‘It won’t work; it’s not how we do things here.’”

Productivity

The expense of hiring consultants means there’s also pressure to demonstrate value for money.

“Clients often think you cost too much. Their budgets are tight and they have a clock ticking in their heads from the first day of the assignment. They want to know … what’s your value, what have you done today to justify your fee?” says one consultant.

Being a good client

These ‘threats’ of course depend on the client, the authors note. Which is to say, expecting consultants to know everything from day one is neither realistic nor a good way of getting value out of them:

“Clients’ own knowledge and experience in buying consulting services also drive the level of information-seeking they tolerate from consultants during socialization. Several practitioners remarked that clients should be permissive and participative during the early phases of an assignment, so as to reap greater benefits from consultants later on.”

The tactics consultants use

To deal with these challenges, consultants use three types of tactics, the academics argue: crafting relevance, crafting resonance, and crafting substance.

Crafting relevance

This is where consultants use existing knowledge sources to help themselves appear competent while still learning.

You don’t necessarily need to know everything, but doing the homework to establish a working understanding of relevant information, including technical details, demonstrates commitment and tends to be welcomed. Establishing the vocabulary used in the organisation’s field of work is “useful for establishing connections between the scattered information that comes from clients”, as one interviewee put it.

Consulting firms will typically give their employees access to information such as up-to-date data on the industry and employees’ previous experiences with the organisation.

Consultants will also bring their own experience with them. Recalling stories from previous projects can be used tactically to elicit information from the client, as one interviewee outlined:

“I told my manager I had no clue about the procurement process at [client] and that I was afraid the client would see through me. He said, ‘Instead of asking ‘How does the procurement process work for you?’ tell him what we’ve done elsewhere and see how he reacts. Prepare yourself like that … It reassures clients.’”

Periodically consultants will also let slip that they lack background information relevant to the client, which sometimes results in negative reactions or being shut out. One consultant explained how he dealt with a situation where the client seemed to realise some of their discussions were going over his head:

“I kept my mouth shut during the meeting to avoid tripping up. I stayed extremely focused on my notes, looking the person who was talking in the eyes and nodding discreetly when remarks seemed broadly shared … Anyhow, they kept addressing me as if I was a technical expert. I used my notes afterward to come back with a clear head about what had been said.”

Crafting resonance

This is about recycling insider knowledge and language to ‘resonate’ with the client.

Consultants tend to imitate the people they’re working for, which helps to gain acceptance and see the world through their eyes.

Using terms that are meaningful in the organisation demonstrates an understanding of its socio-political context. One interviewee described using Latin terms when working with a law firm:

“We prepared as many Latin expressions as we could, dropping phrases like ‘intuitu personae’ into the conversation to show the client that we knew our Latin, too … My colleague and I would use the expression ‘organisations are personagio-dependent’ because one lawyer had used it. I was not sure it was proper Latin … but people responded to it very positively … The client started to repeat the word, and pointed it out to one of his colleagues who had the reputation of being a terrible manager.”

Another trick is taking the ideas and insights of one contact within the client organisation and repeating it back to others. Of course, this is akin to the idea that consultants “steal your watch and then tell you the time”, but it also makes a lot of sense for a newcomer who is trying to learn not only the content but the social dynamics of the organisation. It provides a contextually-situated view on an issue, allows you to test out whether certain ideas are widely held, and gives a prompt for others to share their point of view.

It can also be difficult to pull this off well, so admitting you are new and still trying to understand the organisation can be useful. In fact, clients often like to be told their organisation is unique.

Crafting substance

Consultants are often in the strange position of being hired for their intangible output, but of having clients who want something concrete to demonstrate value for money.

This is why they tend to be good at producing slick slideshows — something that often looks impressive to the client, but gives them time to keep working on more meaningful outcomes, which take longer to produce.

The library of data resources and presentation templates typically held by consulting firms help them produce these products that may be beyond the capacity of the client organisation.

A presentation also gives clients something to give feedback on, allowing the consultant to build their understanding of the situation.

Tools such as timesheets and workload schedules also serve to demonstrate value, and if presented well can send a message of rigour and professionalism, as well as providing an opportunity to review priorities.

If slides or other outputs are not valued by the client, consultants will often dissociate themselves from the product, reframing it as a work in progress or step along the way.

Stakeholder management… or manipulation?

Consultants are often derided for using such tactics.

Of course, they could be used manipulatively, as a smokescreen for not delivering real value.

But in many ways these tactics are not much different to the strategies anyone entering a new work context employs, ranging from asking questions directly to fishing for information to eavesdropping.

Using these tactics can also ultimately help the organisation.

Used effectively, these approaches help consultants understand the client, and facilitate information sharing, which helps improve performance. Building trust by maintaining the appearance of competence tends to lead to greater autonomy and full participation by stakeholders, allowing the consultant — or new employee — to do what they’re being paid to do.

“Consultants also reported that successfully performing the tactics helped sustain productive meetings with clients and secure further contractual arrangements,” write Bourguin and Harvey.

“In the same vein, some consultants who could not deal with learning–credibility tension found that clients tended to denigrate the impact or quality of their work in relation to billable hours, or dispute their fees, therefore impeding commercial imperatives in the longer run.”

In a workplace like the public sector, where knowledge is king, everyone faces the challenge of balancing credibility and learning — so instead of seeing it as a problem, view it as a skillset to be cultivated.

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