The impact of titles on talent performance

How you think about your job – what it contributes, how it adds value, how it links with and supports other roles – has long been associated with motivation and performance. More than 25 years ago, I invited all the staff in my company (an employee communication boutique of around 40 people) to choose their own titles, based on their aspirations for their job roles. While we didn’t measure the results in any systematic way, it was clear that there was a positive effect on engagement and a clearer focus on what was important in each of their roles. The one person, who wasn’t allowed to choose their title, was me, as the chairman. I was quite pleased by the title the staff awarded me – Grand Master of Chaos. We debated whether this should go on my business cards, but opted in the end to use it internally only. However, each team and function used their new titles with pride.

It’s gratifying, therefore, to read a short article in the latest Harvard Business Review, based on an Academy of Management Journal article a couple of years ago[1]. Experiments in a US hospital chain found that asking employees to design their own job titles had a positive effect not just on how emotionally exhausted they felt at the end of the day, but also on the amount of psychological safety they felt and how appreciated they felt their work was.

One of the authors of the original article, Daniel Cable has also experimented with asking groups of employees doing the same job, asking them to collectively agree a job title that they felt accurately described what the role was trying to accomplish. Again, there was a strong positive impact on job satisfaction and employee engagement.

Cable recommends a two stage approach. First, the employee(s) should reflect on the purpose of the job (who it serves and how); and on how they relate to it (for example, what special qualities they bring to it). In the second stage, the employee(s) generate creative suggestions to capture the essence of their reflections, both from themselves and from invited others.

Changing job titles has been a management tool for centuries – particularly in the cynical context of motivating someone by making them feel more important, while not actually giving them more authority or greater reward. Engaging employees in the re-titling process is very different, however. It places them more in control, makes the process more authentic and more meaningful, and releases energy. Given that job roles are constantly evolving, along with organisational structures and customer needs, there is a practical case for reflecting on and reviewing job titles at least every couple of years – if only to refocus attention on the question Why and how do we do what we do?

[1] Grant, AM, Berg, J & Cable, DM (2014) Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflective Titles Can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion

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