Job Roles Say Much More Than Job Titles

I cannot help but notice the importance people place on titles within an organization. We seem to have a fixation on the use of titles.  Even in my own endeavors of employment searching I have been coached on asserting a title for myself in the opening headline of my resume.  This never sat right with me since I believe the value we contribute comes from the why or perhaps the how of our existence much more than the what.  I believe that focusing on Roles instead of Titles within organizations can vastly improve a sense of engagement with the organization.
I suspect this title-centricity unknowingly contributes to disappointment for many. Either we do not yet hold the title we feel we deserve or we have a title we worked hard for hoping to be on the receiving of some kind of glorification or realizing self-actualization that never materializes (beyond the company email announcing new promotions).  There are four reasons I believe this.

  1. Titles are aspired to for the level of respect that many assume come with them
  2. Titles do not effectively communicate what we do or how we add value for an organization
  3. Titles are not fluid
  4. Titles do not support our desires for autonomy and self-direction

The quest for respect
Titles have with them a sense of receiving something considered deserved. That something is often respect.  We often feel a new title earns us respect within the organization because it demonstrates that someone – of whom we have allowed ourselves to sit in judgment – has assessed us as being successful based on a measuring stick we likely had no part in creating.  And this may indicate some latent insecurity.  Are we doing our job for recognition’s sake alone?   Not entirely, but for many people it is unconsciously the biggest reason.  For some there is a sense of accomplishment, for some it’s all about the money, for most it’s a healthy combination of all three. Where the desire for recognition stands alone, there is potential for damage to self-esteem. (An interesting question would be does the strong desire for recognition stem from self-esteem issues or do self-esteem issue stem from a strong desire for recognition.)
Should we be at all surprised when earning the new title soon leaves us empty?  This, I supose, is at least partly due (and maybe mostly due) to the fact that it leads us not to more responsibility to different responsibility – most notably the responsibility for the productivity of others. We can’t assume that because we excelled in one area that we are best suited to oversee and take on responsibility for the work of others.  Such a transition can be successful but it is never automatic.  Being an effective manger is a discipline in it’s own right and a topic that runs deep and is beyond the scope of this post.
Non-communicative of how we add value
Beyond communicating where we reside within an organizational structure, titles do little to provide insight on how and where we add value.  Titles convey very little, if anything, about our specialties and they say nothing about our strengths.  Conversely, when we share what our roles are two things are likely to happen, the person(s) you are speaking with will have a better sense of what your experience of work is like and you will be more emotionally demonstrative in your response.  This says so much more about you than a simple title.  There are two bonuses offered by this approach: First, each time you hear yourself speak about your role, your own level of confidence and affinity for your job will increase.  (Example: Q: “What do you do?”  A1: “I am District Manager.” Vs. A2: “I lead a team of store managers in creating a positive experience for our customers.”) This example is simplistic but the point is there is more opportunity for an emotive and clearer response when focusing on the role and not the title. The second bonus is that in any given week or month you might feel your role is different than if asked last week or last month.  We are free to talk about whatever role is most prominent at that time which will also evoke more emotion in your response than a simple title.
Titles are bestowed upon us at specific intervals during our careers and within a company’s evolutionary process (re-orgs, etc.).  Once assigned, they remain static until another promotion or re-org.  At the tactical level, roles can change much more frequently and staying bogged down in titles can foster a sentiment that is lethal to collaboration – the “not my job” attitude.  The fluidity of roles also supports the notion of multiple concurrent roles.  Have you have known anyone who held two official titles within the same organization at the same time – and be successful at both?
Autonomy and Self-Direction
This is the most powerful part of my argument for roles over titles.  Titles do little more than convey where in the organizational chart name resides.  Titles are assigned to us in accordance with the organization’s hierarchy whereas roles are often created with much, if not all, input from the person filling the role.  Because of this fact alone, as the person occupying the role, we are much more likely to excel due to our ability to have a say in the role(s) we fill.  Research continues to support the idea that autonomy and self-direction are two of three components of that which intrinsically inspires individual to excel.[i]  In his book, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman points out: “Wherever people gravitate towards their work role indicates where their real pleasure lies. And that pleasure is itself motivating.”  He further asserts, “Although traditional incentives such as bonuses or recognition can prod people to better performance, no external motivators can get people to perform at their absolute best.”[ii]  (On this second remark, I will continue to share more in the future as it is at the core of the change I hope to impact on the world.)
I do not at all advocate the abolition of titles.  Titles do serve a critical role in defining reporting structure.  My belief is that in a world where trust in the workplace (and the world) has gone into deep deficit and collaboration is a must for our survival (as organizations for commerce and as a species), we must discontinue our hyper-emphasis on what we are in an organization and instead focus on the value we create.
Now, I wish to share with you a story of a colleague of mine for whom I was the reporting manager.  During our tenure working together, Craig’s title was a Government Programs Compliance Associate in the pharmaceuticals industry.  Those in the industry probably have an idea about what his primary tasks involve. But Craig added value in ways that went beyond that which is limited by what his title suggests.  And, his enthusiasm about this role was conspicuous.  I will let Craig share the story in his own words[iii].
“The roles I filled as a Government Pricing Analyst were fun. I got to be an expert in a field that did not have straightforward answers. Clients always had questions, and I always had research to do in order to provide them an answer. On top of the questions, there was a lot of crazy math involved to calculate the average retail price of drugs.
“With my primary role, which was implied by my title, my clients gave me their data and I churned out numbers in a system that was being built to my needs, as well as my other colleagues’ needs. As time went on, a new manager came in to the company with new, fresh ideas to help us handle the system and all of our tasks. Matt, my new manager, sought ways for me (and the rest of my colleagues) to grow beyond the title of Government Pricing Analyst.
“My appreciation and deep understanding of the system allowed me to flow right into the expanded role of being the individual to demo the company’s system. I loved it! The expansion of my role allowed me to show off my knowledge of the system and it allowed my personality to show in front of clients and companies. It made me feel like the big relief pitcher warming up in the bullpen. I was always on call and when I received the email/notification to demo, I would hop up to the mound and be able to pitch the system to some possible clients. Although my title was Government Pricing Analyst, I was able to extend into more than just calculating numbers and preaching compliance.”
I wish to give my most sincere thanks to Craig Kubicek for his contribution to this post.  It was truly a privilege for me to have the opportunity to serve as Craig’s reporting manager for eight months.  In that brief time I witnessed a young professional capitalize on a little bit of autonomy and develop the confidence to take ownership of presenting demonstrations of a proprietary client delivery solution. This was a professionally gratifying experience for me as his manager.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.
Thank you for reading, have a Great Day!
Matt G.

[i] See for a video narrated by Daniel Pink. Author of A Whole New Mind and Drive
[iii] The views implied through the telling of this story belong solely to the authors and are not necessarily the views of any company, client, supplier or any other constituent of either of the two contributing authors, past or present.
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