Ideas for Leaders #305

Self-Reflective Job Titles Reduce Emotional Exhaustion

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Key Concept

Allowing employees to give themselves self-reflective job titles — the title of Berkshire Hathaway’s event organizer is Director of Chaos, for example — helps them affirm their identity and, even in the most stressful of jobs, reduce emotional exhaustion. The result is less staff turnover, better teamwork, and higher performance.

Idea Summary

A research team from Wharton and London Business School discovered the benefits of self-reflective job titles almost by accident. Wharton professor Adam Grant, PhD candidate Justin Berg, and London Business School professor Daniel Cable were investigating the impact of a series of initiatives by the Make-a-Wish Foundation’s CEO. These initiatives had the goal of fostering a culture that fit the MAW’s mandate to create magical experiences for children. Given the context of their work — granting last wishes to terminally ill children — developing a culture of magic and whimsy for employees was no easy task. Yet, through their interviews with employees, Grant, Berg, and Cable found evidence that the new initiatives were working, and one initiative in particular was mentioned by employees over and over again: the creation of self-reflective titles.

These self-reflective titles — for example, the COO’s title was Minister of Dollars and Sense, an administrative assistant chose Goddess of Greetings, a database manager was the Duchess of Data and a wish manager became Wizardess of Wishes — were not just "inside jokes." The new titles were put on business cards and in email signatures, along with the traditional titles. The employees and managers were encouraged to use the self-reflective titles among themselves and with outsiders.

Deciding to focus exclusively on the impact of self-reflective titles, the team launched a two-year qualitative study, built on participant interviews, non-participant observation and archival documents (such as mission statements, newsletters, meeting agendas) and a quantitative study that expanded the research beyond the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Based on the qualitative study, the researchers concluded that the self-reflective titles enabled employees to stave off emotional exhaustion for three different reasons:

  1. Self-Verification: The self-reflective titles helped employees affirm their identity with other employees based on their values and what they felt was important about their work. “If the titles didn’t happen, we wouldn’t know each other as well,” said one employee. The manager of operations explained about his title: “’Keeper of Keys and Grounds’ doesn’t sound silly to me. It gives a pretty good visual of what I do.”
  2. Psychological Safety: While the self-reflective titles helped employees affirm their individuality, they also helped the employees be more open to each other. Self-reflective titles humanized top managers, making them more accessible. And they also gave employees more confidence, less inhibition in approaching others.
  3. External Rapport: Finally, employees told researchers in their interviews that the self-reflective titles eased their rapport with those outside the organization, especially in their initial contacts. For example, a wish manager with the self-reflective job title of “fairy tale pixie” would get emails from vendors such as, “Don’t get your wings wet, pixie, it’s raining.”

The quantitative study, conducted in the context of the health care industry, confirmed the effect of self-verification and psychological safety, but did not show a corresponding external rapport impact. The researchers felt several factors could have led to this result: employees might not be aware of the impact on external sources, not enough lead time (5 weeks) was allowed, or the external rapport having already been established, there was little room for improvement. While further study can explore these issues, the self-verification and psychological safety impact of self-reflective job titles was unequivocally confirmed.

Business Application

Self-reflective job titles improve team and individual performance and reduce the turnover caused by stress and exhaustion. Their use, however, must be carefully managed. When implementing this type of initiative, leaders should:

  • Ensure that the organization offers unequivocal, top-down support for the titles. The Make-a-Wish CEO modelled the self-reflective title by calling herself the “Fairy Godmother of Wishes.” The COO and other top managers followed suit. Equally important, the titles were included in official correspondence, emphasizing that the self-reflective job titles were intended to be fully integrated in the day-to-day work of the employees.
  • Fit the humour and whimsy of the self-reflective titles to the mission of the organization. The Make-a-Wish initiative was intended to inject a sense of magical whimsy in an organization with the mission to inject some magic and happiness into the sad and painful lives of terminally ill children. In such a context, there was no limit to the humour of the titles as long as children found them funny (even the CFO was known as the King of Cashola.) If employees and managers are interacting with stakeholders that are not looking for fun, however, the job titles should try to reflect the core values and mandate of the position or organization. In the health care context, for example, the researchers found titles such as Germ Slayer for a physician who dealt with infectious diseases and Quick Shot for a nurse who gave allergy shots — evocative and somewhat humorous titles that still conveyed the professionalism and underlying seriousness of the employee.
  • Use self-reflective titles in moderation and as appropriate. Self-reflective titles may not be appropriate for all industries or all professions. The goal is to build up morale and self-esteem, and forcing employees or managers to use whimsical job titles in tense situations or with audiences that might not be receptive to such titles will have the opposite effect. For example, a young-looking female physician struggling to establish her authority and credibility told the researchers that she would resist being called anything but “doctor.” 
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Authors

Institutions

Source

Idea conceived

  • June 2013

Idea posted

  • January 2014

DOI number

10.13007/305

Subject

Real Time Analytics