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'What Do You Do?'

Study Explores misunderstandings some professionals face

O'Connor Family Prof. of Management and Organization Michael Pratt

By Sean Hennessey | Chronicle Staff

Published: Oct. 17, 2013

Having a job is a privilege that brings many things: satisfaction, pride, a roof over your head, a way of life. But what happens, asks O’Connor Family Professor of Management and Organization Michael Pratt, when people don’t understand what you do — and it affects how you are perceived, and how much you are paid?  

A new study co-published by Pratt in the Academy of Management Journal aims to address that very issue. “What Clients Don’t Get about My Profession: A Model of Perceived Role-Based Image Discrepancies” looks at four specific professions that are high in demand but sometimes misunderstood: architects, nurse practitioners, litigation attorneys and certified public accountants.

“If people don’t understand what you do, they tend to devalue what you do,” said Pratt. “They don’t understand why you’re making all this money: ‘Why should I pay you all this money?’ is a common question these professionals keep hearing.”

While this “image discrepancies” study focused on these four professions, Pratt and his fellow researchers say it applies to many more.

“I assumed professionals would actually get over it, that there would be frustration, it would be an interpersonal problem, and that would be the extent of it,” said Pratt. “I didn’t think it would have such a big impact on how they did their job, how it affected their pay and how they performed. I was surprised at the depth of how this affected job performance. Image discrepancy is not simply annoying – it has real impact.”

The 85 professionals employed in the four fields who were surveyed for the study said they had to educate prospective clients on job responsibilities, while managing what researchers found were “impaired collaborations” along with “impracticable” and “skeptical” expectations.

“Architects are being told, ‘All you do is draw lines, sketches, and pictures all day. What do you actually do?’” said Pratt. “‘You don’t build anything. Why should I pay you all this money? If I am redesigning my house, why should I get an architect at all? Why don’t I go to a general contractor and have him or her just build it? Tell him or her what I want and have them just build it for me.’

“Nurse practitioners can actually examine patients and prescribe medication but you’ll get a patient in there saying, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, I want to talk to a doctor.’ They won’t tell the nurse practitioner their problems; they won’t let themselves be examined.

“With accountants, clients don’t want to give them information because they think the purpose of that accountant being there is to find something wrong. People don’t understand what they do.

“Lawyers’ clients will expect their lawyers to be dishonest, and they expect to go to court immediately and win. Several lawyers had clients who are mad at them, wondering ‘Why aren’t we going to court? Why aren’t we getting a deal offered to us?’ It’s because they watch too many lawyer shows.”

All of which has a sobering effect not only on a client’s desire to pay these professionals, said Pratt, but also on their level of satisfaction.

“In addition to the emotional costs, architects, for example, talk about fee erosion. They’re not making as much money anymore because they’re competing against contractors, which they don’t think they should be doing because in their mind, they are providing a very different set of skills. Some professionals are being bypassed entirely. Nurse practitioners are being bypassed by people who want a doctor so they’re not being used.“

To counter image discrepancies, professionals find themselves utilizing a three-pronged approach, explained Pratt: educating a client on “what we do and how we do it”; demonstrating the skill; and relationship building, “getting to know personal details about people, your basic rapport-building.” 

For certain professionals, defining yourself to clients may be just as important as the project itself.

“Even in situations in which it appears that clients do understand a profession,” according to the study, “it may be appropriate for a professional to manage clients’ expectations to maintain initial trust, as gaining trust back after it has been lost may be even more difficult than gaining trust in the first place.”

Also taking part in this study were Heather C. Vough of McGill University, M. Teresa Carador of the University of Illinois, Jeffrey S. Bednar of Brigham Young University, and Erik Dane of Rice University.