Why Job Titles are Hurting Your Organization

I am very vocal with my opinion that job titles are stupid. I understand why they exist and I still think they are stupid. I have many examples over the years about why I came to the conclusion that job titles are stupid and the converging theme is because job titles get in the way of progress.

Having said that, I do believe roles are good. Roles help to shape your primary focus based on the work, whereas titles pigeon-hole people into doing one specific type of work.

How many times have your heard someone say “that’s not my job” or something similar?   I’ve worked with developers who have said “I’m a developer, I don’t test“.  The theory behind job titles is that it can create a sense of higher self-esteem and make people feel good and it can help establish what people are responsible for.  It can also be a way to determine how much to pay somebody.

Those can be good things.  

Where that theory breaks down is in organizations that give exciting titles instead of raises or in Agile organizations where all people on the team should be considered equal team members.   I find that organizations that struggle with getting better outcomes using Agile simply have a collection of people and not a team.  They’ll stick some programmers, testers and business people on the team, give them the same titles and silo’d responsibility and then wonder why this magical Agile thing isn’t working.

Even more typical, from my experience, is trying to optimize hand-offs between departments instead of re-arranging the structure to support the type of work and eliminate the hand-off entirely.

A team I worked with many years back was a cross-functional team of developer, testers and business people. They all had their respective titles and after the first sprint during our retrospective the developers brought up the fact that they had nothing to do the last couple of days.  The testers on the other hand had too much to do at the end of the sprint and barely finished the testing.   I asked the team what they thought they could do about that.  One of the developers piped up and said “we can probably help the testers test, what do you guys think?

That completely changed the dynamic of the team.  It took another few sprints for the team to really gel, but those guys got it.  Despite their titles, they understood team responsibility and they did this on their own.  All I did was ask a question.

On the flip side, I posted a while ago about a different experience where the team had finished their work in the sprint even though their manager was on vacation.  They were glad they did, but they sure as heck didn’t want to do it again.  The manager set the priorities and handed out the work to the team and that was the expectation that was set and the titles re-enforced that.  I’d hear things like “we have to wait until our manager says this solution is ok“.

I still think job titles are stupid.  I can understand why people think they need them, it doesn’t change my opinion that an over-emphasis on job titles can severely hurt your organization.  I’d go a step further and say there’s a deeper problem when job titles and department silos work against progress.  Focus changes from how can we deliver this value to this customer to how can we hammer this type of request through our structure.

I’ve yet to hear a good argument for job titles.  I don’t consider “you can’t just let everybody do everything!!!!” or “If everybody is responsible, nobody is!!!”  (which I’ve heard pretty much everywhere I’ve worked) a valid argument.

Job titles lead to silo’d thinking.  Silo’d thinking leads to a blaming culture and desire for more process and stronger silos.  Silo’s lead to divergent goals.  Divergent goals lead to a focus on process driven outcomes over product or value driven outcomes.  Process driven outcomes lead to waste and bloat.  After all, nothing is getting done because we’re so focused on getting our process and metrics right that nobody is doing any real work anymore.

So what’s the alternative?  Organize your people around the work.  Throw away your department metrics if they’re not valuable (and from my experience they usually aren’t). If you are in an Agile company, abolish job titles for team members and refer to people as team members.

When you hire people, set the expectation they are working as part of the team.  They may play a developer role but they will need to work with the team towards a shared goal.  If that sounds too fluffy, too bad, anybody who’s more interested in a title than the job isn’t somebody I’d hire, or want to work with, in the first place.

Invest in your people by training them or sending them to conferences to help them do their work and learn new skills.   Give them leadership and help them become a self-organizing team.  It’s not magic, building a great team takes effort, training, support, education and leadership.  Slapping a ‘manager’ title on somebody is just irresponsible without proper support and guidance.

Trust me, at the end of the day your people will thank you for helping them improve themselves and ripping down silos that prevent progress.  That’s a gift a stupid title just can’t do.