How Organisations Can Overcome Conflicting Identity and Reputation

By William Harvey, Tim Morris and Milena Santos

Based on their examination of how an organisation responds when its identity is substantially misaligned with the experience and perceptions of external stakeholders that form the basis of reputational judgments, the authors outline in this article the strategic ways for successfully managing reputation and identity conflict through a set of remedial actions that shift the focus away from the organisational level to individual-level identities with clients.


It is generally argued that it is difficult for clients to judge the quality of management consultancy work ex ante and ex post because of the intangible nature of professional services and because of information asymmetries where consultants have more information about their expertise than clients. At the same time, many clients are now very experienced buyers of management consultancy and many clients have previously worked in the sector. Therefore, they are likely to be informed judges of consultants’ reputations. And identity is said to drive the reputation, because our actions reflect “who we are”. So, as consulting firms evolve and adapt to different market challenges, this raises the possibility of a conflict between the identity claims of management consultancies (who they are and what they do – their expertise claims) and their reputation (what relevant others actually think their expertise is).

We recognise that all organisations face some disconnect between their identity claims and reputation but for management consultancies this is very important because of the centrality of reputation to their competitive position in client and labour markets. Disconnects undermine consulting firms’ capacity to engage effectively with clients and retain valuable professional talent. We show that the distinct loosely coupled structure typical of management consultancies and the knowledge-based nature of the service require distinct reputation-building strategies, which we explain in more detail in the next section.

This project involved primary research with 116 partners, consultants, clients, non-clients, competitors, alumni and potential employees of a highly prominent global management consultancy across eight countries. We also conducted focus groups, three partner workshops and non-participant observations. All of this provided us with a very rich and unique insight and account into management consultancy.

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About the Authors

Will Harvey is Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Research at the University of Exeter Business School. Will researches on reputation and leadership within organisations. His work has appeared in world leading journals such as Harvard Business Review, Journal of Management Studies and Human Relations.

Tim Morris is Professor of Management Studies in the University of Oxford, and co-director of several of the Said Business School’s key executive education programmes. He is a founding member of the Novak Druce Centre for Professional Service Firms and a project director in Oxford University’s Centre for Corporate Reputation

Dr. Milena Mueller Santos is a research officer at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include corporate reputation and ethical supply chains.


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