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.
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:
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.
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:
Job titles as identity badges: How self-reflective titles can reduce emotional exhaustion. Adam Grant, Justin M. Berg and Daniel M. Cable. Academy of Management Journal (Forthcoming).
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