My problem with job titles was that they hide the things that you really want to know about a person. Are they good at their job? Do they value collaborating (with me)? Do they work hard? Are they going through a tough time outside of work? Do they have a family? Have they had other jobs before this? All these questions and so many more are what really amount to the experience you have interacting with another person. At their most friendly, job titles are reductionist. At their least friendly, they bolster the ego and patch over deficiencies with assumed competence.
“I shouldn’t need that job title” was a phrase that commonly looped around my head. I wondered why, despite a lot of hard work, a lot of time helping others, a lot of energy spent understanding what motivated people tailoring our interactions around those values, my efforts weren’t being recognised by others. Then, after a period of hard work and little to show for it, some pieces clicked that changed my perspective.
Everyone else is doing it
What a terrible reason to do anything.
This is, however, the core of my argument. It’s a bit more nuanced than that, but I’m hopeful that you’ll keep reading to find out why I would resort to a line of reasoning I proclaimed awful just a second ago.
We don’t work in a vacuum
No person operates in a vacuum. Whether it’s via an intra-team relationship, towards a boss, towards stakeholders or even with a customer; we all operate as part of a group.
Each of the people in your group(s) has a distinct identity; multi-faceted and with a completely unique set of experiences. You could probably describe the complex identities that some of your close team members have. Can you do it with your boss? Can you do it with their boss? Eventually, we run out of room to truly know people and their myriad experiences.
I was expecting people to understand my background though they had never seen it. I was expecting team members to somehow find out that I was good at something and that I would gladly share my time with them. I would wonder why another senior person might be asked a question that they would then defer to me, yet continue to be asked those kinds of questions by the same people.
We seek to understand our relationships with others
People are inherently social creatures. All of us exist within multiple social structures and occupy different roles within each of them. Having some sense of what our role is allows us to feel confident in our belonging.
These structures build up slowly over time. At work, they often start as rigid agreements between each team member about what their role looks like. These change over time as we get to know one another.
In each of these interactions, we want some idea of the role that the other person is occupying when they’re talking to us. Is it a colleague, a friend, a superior, or something else entirely? Understanding this context is important to how we communicate and it can even change during a conversation.
Each of us might have the capability of fulfilling many different roles at different times. Add this to the complexity offered by personal experience and you’ve got a huge amount to take into account.
With all this information available, it’s impossible to digest it all. People look for ways to distill the complexity into simpler representations. This could be through roles and duties, it can be through nicknames, it can be through reputation built up and discussed throughout the team over time.
One of the simplest ways for people to simplify all of the information is through a job title. A job title is a shortcut to understanding. People rely on them, especially in groups where they are new, in order to hone in on the right person(s) to help them.
Complex relationships and nuance trump a job title every time, but the road to understanding and a good relationship with someone is long and paved with ups and downs.
Everyone else is offering shortcuts. Do everyone a favour; offer people a useful shortcut. If there isn’t the right shortcut for people to take, strive to make one.