Self-Reflective Job Titles: A Cost-Effective Way to Reduce Emotional Exhaustion

Topic(s): burnout, professional identity
Publication: Academy of Management Journal
Article: Job titles as identity badges: How self-reflective titles can reduce emotional exhaustion
Authors: Adam M. Grant, Justin M. Berg, and Daniel M. Cable
Reviewed by: Sijia Li

Job titles serve important functions in organizations. They help with job categorization, communicate qualifications, and facilitate the development of initial trust in team collaboration.

For employees, job titles are the first information we communicate to prospective clients, new acquaintances, and the outside world in general. They indicate certain competencies and status, recognize contribution, and engender pride in identity. However, job titles can also cause frustration if they fail to convey such information, or if they highlight stigmatized aspects of the jobs.

Accepting the fact that we often see our job titles as an integral part of our identity, the authors of a new study proposed that job titles can be manipulated to direct employees’ attention to certain aspects of their jobs and to enhance their quality of interaction with others.

SELF-REFLECTIVE JOB TITLES

The authors define self-reflective job titles as “a self-generated designation for a work role that is personalized to capture the way an employee adds unique value to the organization.”

Self-reflective job titles have gained considerable popularity in the last two decades. These titles may ultimately serve as the balance point between individual desire for self-expression and organizational need of control.

 

SELF-REFLECTIVE JOB TITLES AS AN ORGANIZATIONAL INTERVENTION

The Make-A-Wish Foundation (MAW) is a nonprofit organization that “grants the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions.” As its staff members often have to deal with children with terminal illness and are unable to fulfill the wishes of every eligible child due to insufficient funds, they are subject to high levels of emotional exhaustion and burnout.

At one of their Midwestern chapters, the CEO introduced a few new initiatives, including encouraging the staff to use personalized job titles that convey their unique roles and values to supplement their formal titles. The authors conducted semi-structured interviews and observation, and examined archival documents to learn about the staff’s experience in using personalized job titles.

Many interviewees indicated that they used their self-reflective job titles on various occasions, and almost all of them commented on its value as a stress reduction strategy. They suggested that self-reflective titles helped them focus on more meaningful aspects of their jobs and feel affirmed by others (self-verification); created an organizational climate in which they felt comfortable expressing their identities (psychological safety); and contributed to more positive interactions with outsiders (external rapport).

 

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF SELF-REFLECTIVE JOB TITLES

The authors tested their theory in a health care organization in the southeastern U.S.

They compared the level of emotional exhaustion, self-verification, psychological safety and external rapport of participants in three different conditions– self-reflective job titles intervention, negotiation training intervention, and no intervention (control). Data were collected before and five weeks after the intervention.

The study found that only participants in the self-reflective job titles condition experienced reduced emotional exhaustion. Self-verification and psychological safety mediated the relationship, whereas external rapport had no effect.

 

BIG PICTURE TAKEAWAY

If employees in your organization are at risk of high emotional exhaustion, it may be a viable (and virtually free) intervention to invite them to express their unique identities through creating self-reflective job titles and using them to supplement formal titles. With clear positive benefits, and no known drawbacks, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.