Unveiling the mysteries of professional identity formation in the international aid sector

21 May 2018
Dr. Scott Breslin

by Dr. Scott Breslin

Scott is the International Director of Operation Mercy a Swedish, relief and development NGO.

In this blog, Scott explores how the formation of professional identity takes place and why it is interesting for the humanitarian sector.

As long as I can remember, I was fascinated by how ‘diverse’ people developed a common identity that allows them to work together. I was particularly interested in how this worked in the international aid sector where aid workers come from a wide variety of academic and occupational contexts. In this sense, shared identity is mainly developed through professionalism, which not only has an impact on personal wellbeing and work effectiveness, but on the legitimacy of the whole sector, on how it is perceived from the outside. Without professional unity, the aid sector would not be fit for purpose, thus, I believe, it is important to explore how the formation of professional identity takes place.

The research also contributes to organisational efforts to comply with the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS) as some of the commitments emphasize the need for staff professionalism. For example, the quality criterion of Commitment 7 states that humanitarian actors should continuously learn and improve, while Commitment 8 urges organisations to support their staff to do their job effectively and treat them fairly and equitably.

In the course of investigating the professional journeys of a dozen exemplary expatriate field practitioners, I discovered that there are no less than seven key experiences that shape our professional identity. Most of these experiences are in a continuous process of being verified (or not) throughout our careers.  Professional identity formation is the process by which a person self-identifies with a particular profession.  Reflected appraisals (i.e. a person’s perception of how others see and evaluate them) play a prominent role in the formation of our professional identity.  The seven common experiences are:

  1. Having a job in the sector
  2. Being entrusted with leadership responsibility
  3. Being invited to sit-at-the-table
  4. Experiencing job success
  5. Mastering vocabulary and jargon
  6. Earning a sector-specific graduate degree
  7. Experiencing inner satisfaction or fit

These landmarks carry different weight and meaning for different people.  These experiences, like landmarks on a long road trip in unfamiliar territory, serve to booster our confidence, confirming and shaping our identity (or not).

Implications for professional practice

So what does all this mean for the humanitarian sector? Here are a few thoughts that apply to graduate degree programmes, internships, on-boarding, and on-the-job learning. Some practical things to consider:

  • INGOs should consider taking an active part in helping staff find roles within the organisation where they can experience these landmarks.
  • If a person is not experiencing job success or inner satisfaction in their current role, perhaps there is another job within the INGO where they can. This would require INGOs to have an organisational culture that could tolerate a degree of experimentation and even failures from new staff.
  • You need to be proactive in seeking jobs where you can be successful and experience fit. Your organisation can not do that for you.
  • Experiencing fit is not just a matter of having the right skills and aptitude for the job. Fit also has to do with fitting in with the team and people at work.
  • The chances of experiencing inner satisfaction at work can be enhanced when an organization has a strong culture and practice of workplace conflict resolution. If that is not the case, take the initiative to develop your own conflict management skills.
  • Mastery of organisational jargon and vocabulary should be part of the organisational on-boarding process.  It increases the sense of belonging.
  • Graduate programmes claiming to prepare people for the international aid sector should have a strong project management element, since project management is a fundamental job requirement in the aid sector.
  • Internships and short-term volunteer experiences played an important role in the professional journey of my research participants. Good internships provide: a) realistic job scenarios, b) opportunities to experience collegial working relationships, and c) exposure to sector specific jargon and vocabulary.
  • Since being invited to sit-at-the-table contributes to professional identity formation and thus a sense of belonging, senior leaders should regularly acknowledge able staff members by asking them to give opinions, write articles, or lead meetings.

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