Last week Elon Musk dropped all job titles associated with Tesla referring to himself as CEO of nothing.
Although he soon discovered that some jobs are legally required – for now at least.
He said he deleted all his Tesla titles to ‘see what would happen’ , so it could be just another outlandish statement – but he may be right in general about the futility of job titles.
Titles exist to to signal to others what we do and our relative status within an organisation. Their main role is to provide clarity to others about the person they are dealing with.
However , in an era when many of us will work from our teens to our 70’s, and beyond, the idea that all our skills and experiences – that everything we have to offer the world of work- can be neatly summed up in a couple of words, is naive.
Additionally, job title inflation – the increasing number and size of grandiose job titles in corporations and organisations – is everywhere.
Last year the BBC announced it would reduce over 5000 baffling titles to just 400. In the public sector there’s a surfeit of Officers, Directors and Heads of Everything, all designated to make people feel a lot more important than they actually are.
I once ran a team that abandoned job titles. It worked for a while. People actually had to define themselves by what they contributed rather than use a title as a signal of their identity, self-esteem and status.
After a few months though we bowed to pressure to bring them back – the wider corporate structure couldn’t cope without badges to label people with, and a couple of the more established members didn’t like the fact that there was no way of signalling their seniority. I gave in to the desire for hierarchy. That’s why most people hold on to titles: they want their fair share of recognition.
The inability of our organisations to think beyond job titles and job descriptions – of neat little boxes – is in part linked to our failure to shift from an industrialised model of work.
As Roger L. Martin has written – companies everywhere struggle with the management of knowledge workers. Many modern workers don’t manufacture products or perform basic services or tasks, rather they produce decisions, thoughts or ideas.
This results in an almost primitive form of design – the organisational structure chart – which places knowledge within neat directorates and then draws boxes around people.
The end result of this is there for all to see: an inability of organisations to tap into the skills of people across the wider organisation and a cyclical round of growth, redundancy, hiring and firing as the company recruits based on a job description only to realise it doesn’t need it a few years later.
There are companies who have made the successful shift away from job titles:
Gusto: “The most immediate change was in our recruiting. Our hiring managers saw incredible people come through—people who never would’ve applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap. Eliminating job titles helps create a “no ego” culture”.
CloudFare: – “Titles definitely come with a cost. The best ideas are bottom-up, not top-down. But in most companies, the ideas come from the top, and hierarchy can mean artificial authority wins, not the best idea”
Valve: We have no formal titles. The few employees who’ve put titles on business cards do so to satisfy outsiders apprehensive about working with people without labels. The same applies to Gabe Newell, one of Valve’s founders. “I think he’s technically the C.E.O., but it’s funny that I’m not even sure of that.”
Related: How Complexity Kills Trust
We Are All Project Managers Now
Today’s workplace is complex and dynamic, needing a high degree of technological proficiency. There is a generational shift in the workplace, making it a new HR challenge to lead multi-generational and more diverse teams. There is a need for people who can lead or execute projects from beginning to end.
Let’s get rid of “jobs,” argues Roger L. Martin, and instead give everyone “a portfolio of projects.”
If we used the project rather than the job or the job title as the organising principle, we’d be much more productive, efficient and happier.
This would avoid progression being seen from jumping from title to title, climbing a hierarchy and grabbing “director” accolades along the way. People will know that you’ve advanced because you’re tackling more advanced projects.
The Rise Of Quirky Titles
“We have our fun titles, and everyone has the opportunity to consider their title and come up with something that means something to them…”
Maybe if we are to have job titles we need ones that are more reflective of who we are personally. A study by the University of Pennsylvania and London Business School found that “self-reflective” job titles reduced workers’ emotional exhaustion, helped them cope with emotional challenges, and let them affirm their identity at work. The team tested their findings in hospitals, where they asked workers to give themselves new job titles. An infectious disease specialist became a “germ slayer,” and an X-ray technician was dubbed a “bone seeker”.
Tightly defined job titles and job descriptions can kill innovation at a time when we need to create more concept and value-driven teams.
They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. They cause people to focus on “just doing the job”. Huge resources lie untapped.
The networked organisation of the future will utilise the skills of people regardless of who they are, where they sit or what their title is.
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