Negative identity: how to become a “good” professional by taming your weaknesses
[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Lambert JERMAN and Alaric BOURGOIN [/su_pullquote]
At a time when many professions are questioning their own deep meaning, torn between economic constraints and impending automization, the auditor for the Big Four accounting firms has provided a useful insight into what makes work meaningful for today’s service professionals.
From the empowering stature of the expert to difficulties on the ground
On the ground, auditors face a series of difficulties which tend to nuance the idealised vision of the numerate professional. In practice, auditing demands that the practitioner resist and sometimes transgress their company rules, while adjusting continually to the constraints of their missions according to their own subjective logic. Refractory clients with packed schedules or accounting papers in chaos 1 means auditors grapple with a permanent sense of anxiety about their ability to accomplish their missions. The fear of doing damage is omnipresent, since an undetected error in the financial statements can have serious legal and financial consequences. All these facets of the work of the auditor suggest that the construction of his identity does not always bring a sense of worth, reassurance, or inner harmony. It is also linked to an intense relationship between an individual and his or her weaknesses, where the exercise of his professional activity confronts him with the limits of his expertise, his failures, his mistakes.
This is why we tried to understand the practices and the discourses that the auditor uses to construct the image of a “good” professional. How do difficulties on the ground determine the auditor’s ability to match up to his own expectations as a professional? To answer this question, we carried out an ethnographic enquiry over six months in a big international audit firm.
Negative identity: constructing an identity as a “good” professional through experiencing, confessing and managing one’s weaknesses
Our results show that the construction of professional identity takes place under conditions of stress, when an individual is driven to examine himself objectively in the hope of embodying an idealised professional image in public. Our study of the auditor allowed us to pinpoint the notion of “negative identity” which lies at the heart of our argument. Negative identity equates to the practices and discourses by which the auditor constructs him or herself as a “good professional” in intense and continuous relationship to his or her weaknesses. Specifically, these practices and discourses revolve around (1) experiencing, (2) confessing and (3) managing the auditor’s own weaknesses.
By experiencing his weaknesses, the auditor engages in a practical investigation which enables him to become aware of the distance which exists between his image of himself as a numerate professional and the reality in the field. Ambiguous situations, equivocal subject matter, the constant pressure of error-avoidance and clients, mean he can’t rely solely on the company rules to regulate his behaviour. This dawning awareness brings anxiety and forces him to question his areas of vulnerability, to take risks, to put himself in a “lower position” in response to the demands and limitations of clients. This attitude echoes observations made in other service professions like consultancy 2, where professionals have to contend with anxiety linked to the proliferation of short-term contracts, new environments and contact with demanding clients.
By confessing his weaknesses, the auditor operates a convergence of his vulnerable position and the more empowering image of the numerate professional. This practice maintains the tension between the individual’s negative self-perception and the more laudatory discourse carried by the firm. Confession is in the first instance linked to an exercise in humility, where the auditor again confronts himself in a reflexive endeavour. He must learn to “self-assess as bad”, ie, externalise and verbalise his weaknesses on a voluntary basis in the firm’s appraisal system. These systems then encourage the definition of “progress axes” which operate a fundamental reversal. The detailed factoring-in of the individual’s weak points leads to the stabilisation of a professional profile appreciated at its proper value. However, this transformation is never completely achieved because confession safeguards the imperfectability at the heart of professionalism.
Finally, by managing his weaknesses, the auditor rationalises the key issues of the job and discovers interpersonal and official support which allows him to contend with the challenges of the field. Since the reversal operated by the confession is largely rhetorical and confined within the walls of the company, it isn’t sufficient to enable the individual to contend with his weaknesses in a lasting way. The overall vision of the missions and the client’s issues, team solidarity and official concerns, allow him to make a virtue of necessity, and assimilate the constraints and vagueness of the job, on an intellectual as well as a practical level. The auditor, characterised by doubt due to the challenges on the ground, is thus repositioned within the prestigious social identity of the professional, creating in the individual a temporary equilibrium which must be forever created and recreated between these two poles.
The “good” professional, Sisyphus of imperfection
By taking the auditor’s weaknesses and on-the-ground challenges seriously, “negative identity” reintroduces personal identity behind the well-delineated and high-status image of the expert affixing a final judgement on the correctness of the accounts. We can discern a vulnerable auditor, as invasive with himself as he is with his client. Faced with the ambiguity of the situations in which he has to intervene, the auditor feeds his professionalism with his ability to doubt himself and with an anxious view of his ability to bring his missions to a successful conclusion. A veritable Sisyphus of imperfection, he presents as an individual in tension between a sometimes painful experience of the job and the positive image carried by the firms.
Our observations show how the construction of identity also takes place in and through challenges, placing the individual in an introspective position, maintaining constant doubt 3 about his own value. Beyond the threat of economic circumstances or of the coming automization of verification operations, our study suggests that the auditor owes his success as a professional to the adaptable nature of a practice fed by constructive questioning of his own value.
[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]The first author worked as an auditor himself and logged his observations (in his firm and when on mission) in a working journal. This ethnographic method let researchers get close to the issues on the ground and acquire insider knowledge of observed phenomena. This method is relevant in analysing the construction of identity, which is experienced intimately by the players and therefore difficult to verbalise during interviews. The rôle of the second author was crucial in order to check immersion bias and find a proper balance between professional distance and the personal involvement that is indispensable to ethnographic research. Reference for the complete article: JERMAN, L., & BOURGOIN, A. (2018). L’identité négative de l’auditeur. Comptabilité – Contrôle – Audit, 24 (1), 113-142. doi:10.3917/cca.241.0113.[/su_spoiler]