I remember earlier in my career I delighted in my first job titles. It made me feel all ‘grown up’ and they were obvious signs of my career progressing incrementally. I was so chuffed at the age of 27 years to bag the word ‘senior’ in my job title. How premature that seems now. Something I know I would recoil at these days, some 25 years later.
At Hempsall’s I’ve had the same job title for over 20 years, director that is. I have other project related titles, national this, programme that, and I am a psychotherapist as well. In the latter role it is probably more justified to have such a title, like a doctor for example. You wouldn’t want to be operated upon by anyone without the words specialist or surgeon on their badge or CV would you? But in general modern work environments we must ask are they necessary anymore?
Job titles do have a function. They give the people you work with, internally and externally, including customers, the clues they need so they can work out what you do and tailor their interaction with you accordingly. It’s the natural next step after they have consciously or subconsciously completed their initial assessment of you. You know, they’ve looked you up and down, checked out your dress code, and worked out how old or experienced or senior you are. They’ve analysed what you look like, sound like and feel like. And that is the problem, right there. That’s exactly what people do. And I’m fed up with it.
“Once you label me, you negate me.” Søren Kierkegaard was supposed to have said. And I agree. It is one of my favourite quotes, or at least the one I most easily remember. The trouble with titles is they do squeeze people into small boxes. And in these egalitarian, flatter-structure, multi-tasking, nimble and fluid environments at work, who wants or needs to be so tightly defined? Not me. And I don’t want the people I work with to be either. I want customers to be able to speak to any member of the team with confidence that their needs will be met.
The big risk is that as organisations get bigger, roles become more separate, specialist and disconnected. If it isn’t in your job description or title, then it simply isn’t done. And if your role is tightly defined then the ability to work in a fluid and team-focused way can often, although not always, be stifled. Some aspects of job titles can be almost impossible to shake off. They limit change. And there is a huge risk of them reinforcing inequality and hierarchy and power. Which is the polar opposite of what we want to achieve in tackling privilege and opening up opportunity.
We should all be able to fulfil all sorts of basic and essential business functions in our roles. By that I mean we should be health and safety focused, sales hungry, decision-makers and innovation creators – for example. I have presided over enough staff or business restructures and reviews to know how powerfully attached some can be to their job titles. The process can be a long and torturous one of negotiation and one that can be slow to change. All rather distracting and pointless. It doesn’t effect the change we are all aiming for. I’d rather focus more on roles and contributions and impact and difference made in roles, than what it says on the tin. And I want people in the team and our customers to be able to interact with each other equally and across all ‘levels’ of the people in the business. What makes this work is good communications across a business.
All this is easier said than done. This is my intent. Now, how does it happen?