Have you ever felt so attached to your job title that if you lost it, you might feel like you had lost yourself? Or have you ever sat quietly in a meeting because someone else with a job title more senior than yours was speaking and you did not want to overstep? Maybe you have felt a pang of jealousy seeing a colleague update LinkedIn with their new title? You are not alone. More than 55 percent of Americans get their identity from their job title (Gallop, 2014). But you are much more than your job title. It is time to break free.
Understanding Job Titles
Job titles may not contain a considerable amount of words, but they can carry a significant amount of weight and power (Dixon, 2018). For hundreds of years, job titles have been a universal symbol sending meaningful signals to those around us of skill, status, and identity both in and outside of our organization (Grant, et al., 2014). Job titles also highlight rank and hierarchy within a working environment, giving others a sense of the collectively perceived importance of one person over another. Job titles are used as a tool to influence organizational culture by creating hierarchies and status distinctions between individuals whose work tasks or responsibilities may not necessarily be different. In fact, you might be doing the same tasks as the person next to you, but you have a different job title and salary. This view, although still common, does not allow the capacity to see someone for who they are rather than what they may or may not represent socioculturally.
No matter what job you do, the title does not replace the value you inherently hold within yourself. Our worth and our value is much greater than an imposed organizational identifier. And considering that employment status is largely not within our control and can change at any moment, giving the power of identity to a state in flux can leave us paralyzed in our identity.
Impact of Job Titles
Some organizations use job titles as an indicator and identifier of their high-value employees, not necessarily as a symbol of their job functions (Strobl & Van Wesep, 2010). Others use job titles as a way to anchor employee identities and influence equity perception (Greenberg & Ornstein, 1983). As a result, issues have risen across organizations, such as psychological impacts, pay equity issues, and organizational confusion (Dixon, 2018).
Titles come and go. Identities are multiple and dynamic, and job titles often limit people’s ability to stretch themselves. Organizations have reported that job titles can create organizational challenges and hinder innovation and creativity. A culture bound by hierarchical and bureaucratic infrastructures centered around job titles can impact organizational engagement. It causes people to be afraid of making decisions and being held accountable. Organizational engagement is being impacted (Llopis, 2015).
- Execution by job title mentality
- Politicizing decision-making
- Limits employees’ beliefs and abilities
Three Ways to Liberate Yourself
Here are three ways you can help liberate yourself from the restraints of job titles:
- Define your identity outside of work—who are you, what do you love to do, reflect.
Focus on what you do and WHY—finding the purpose in your work. You can find the purpose in anything if you look deep enough.
Think beyond your resumé. You hold many skills, passions, and beliefs beyond the work you do. Pause for a moment to reflect upon what you know about yourself that your job title doesn’t currently highlight. What else do you offer the world? What are the unique qualities that those who know and love you (such as friends and family members) always comment on? Consider what you enjoy about your work. Who are you in the moments when you are feeling you’re most empowered? Let go of short-sighted professional branding and focus instead on the person you are when you feel you’re most supported and appreciated. This is the most authentic version of your true identity.
- Create your own title—don’t restrict yourself to the title HR requires.
Studies have shown that self-reflective job titles have helped employees affirm or reaffirm their identities at work while also helping them cope with emotional challenges (Grant, et al., 2015).
Be creative! Job titles are often mechanical outputs from an archaic HR tracking system and can be limited to what the system will allow. Create your own phrase or description for what you do—you are not limited to the HR label. Self-created job titles are becoming more and more popular. Chief Officer of Awesomeness. Creator of Things. Maker of Magic. Brand Ninja. Create something meaningful for you that draws the person in and makes them want to ask more about you and your work.
- Take control over the narrative—don’t lead with your job title.
Try introducing yourself by sharing what you do rather than what your organizational title reads. For example, “I support adults with learning difficulties” rather than “I am an education coordinator.” Instead of saying, “I am an instructional designer” (which many people may not truly understand), you can say “I design learning solutions to help adults learn new skills.” While you’re at it, swap out negative self-talk such as, “I am only a cashier…” for more positive statements such as, “I am a skilled customer service agent” and, “I am no good at…” for, “I am learning to….” This small but mighty change of narrative could make more difference than you might initially realize.
Lead with what you love doing in your role. Include your aspirations of what you want to be doing next. Define your elevator pitch, two-sentence description, your brand.
Think of your career or your life as a portfolio of passion. Just like people have financial portfolios consisting of stocks or bonds, life is also a portfolio, but it is constituted by passions.
Whether or not we give job titles the power to control or create self-imposed limitations is up to each one of us. Creating and recognizing your identity outside of work, determining your own self-reflective title, and changing the narrative of the conversation can help you take back, create, and control your identity. We might not be able to control what goes into an HR system, but we can choose how we represent ourselves going forward. Acknowledging and embracing the reality that you are not your job title, and that your job title does not need to identify you or box you in, can be empowering and set you free.
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