Recognizable job titles clearly have benefits, but can be a source of frustration and stress for employees
Numerous management books extoll the virtue of being ‘authentic’ or being your ‘genuine’ self at work. One dynamic that goes against this is the need to be a specific ‘job title’ – can you really be your true self while also adopting the persona you deem necessary to be the ‘Senior Accounts Manager’ or whatever.
A recent piece of research from Wharton professor Adam Grant, LBS’s professor Daniel Cable, and Wharton PhD researcher Justin Berg, looks at why allowing people to have the job title they really want or feel most comfortable with can benefit the individual and the organization.
(Not the same as allowing people to write their own job description) this research suggests that “when leaders encourage employees to reflect on—and then reflect out—their unique value through personalized titles, employees are able to express their identities in ways that contribute to a sense of affirmation and psychological safety, reducing emotional exhaustion.” Clearly that’s good for the individual. And it’s good for the organization because reduced emotional exhaustion means fewer illnesses, less burn-out, lower intent to quit, and improved employee engagement and performance.
The researchers point out that allowing employees self-reflective job titles can be especially useful in jobs where effective performance demands rapid relationship-building. In service encounters, when employees have only moments to form first impressions, self-reflective titles may assist employees in differentiating themselves—and their organizations’ services— by making a memorable and authentic first impression.
Of course this will be unsettling news for many organizations, in fact an HR manager’s nightmare, as job titles both help define organizational structure and communicate the knowledge, skills, and other characteristics that employees who hold a specific job are likely to possess. They also allow organizations to compare different types of contributions to the organization, and are integral to processes such as selection, performance appraisal, and compensation. Furthermore using recognizable job titles also has meaningful implications for employees, both on and off the job.
The researchers conducted two field research studies. The first at the Make-A-Wish Foundation, showed them that employees experienced self-reflective job titles as reducing their emotional exhaustion. In the second, an experimental study within a health care system, they found that employees who created self-reflective job titles experienced less emotional exhaustion five weeks later, whereas employees in two control groups did not. In conclusion they suggest that self-reflective job titles can be “important vehicles for identity expression and stress reduction, offering meaningful implications for research on job titles, identity, and emotional exhaustion.”
Although recognizable job titles clearly have benefits, they can also be a source of frustration and stress for employees, and even when job titles do not convey direct negative cues, they may be ineffective in conveying the competence and contributions of job holders. As a development team leader explained to the researchers “using her self-reflective title gave her the chance to bring her personal identity to work, not only her professional identity as a fundraiser, helping her cope with emotional challenges.”
So, although it may be difficult to envisage instituting self-reflective job titles in your organization, at a time when employee engagement and the need to bring on a younger generation of managers are high on the HR agenda, this research is a salutary and very worthwhile contribution.
Read the research: Job Titles as Identity Badges, Academy of Management Journal 2014, Vol. 57, No. 4, 1201–1225
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