To Hell With Corporate Hierarchy Titles
Corporate hierarchy titles are like woolly mammoths—except they never went extinct. Is it not time for a fresh look at both hierarchy and job titles?
There are a lot of management and hierarchy structures that we often discuss here, most of which are about ditching job titles. Why is that, what is the alternative, and what exactly is the problem with corporate hierarchy titles?
What is the typical corporate hierarchy?
The typical hierarchy (or chain of command, if you will) can vary within companies and is affected by the number of staff members.
The hierarchy of corporate titles can look something like this:
- Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
- Chief Operating Officer (CEO)/Chief Technology Officer (CTO)/Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
- Executive President
- Senior Vice President
- Vice President
- Assistant Vice President
- Associate Vice President
- Senior Director
- Assistant/Associate Director
- Middle Manager
- Frontline employees
Fancy job titles
Incomprehensible job titles are an elitist affectation. If there’s one thing most industries need less of, it’s that. "Funny" job titles started out as a quirky thing—mostly at big companies—that were supposed to indicate the supposedly informal environment. But then things got a bit out of hand.
It's certainly nice when companies let go of job titles, but not necessarily if they're really doing it to replace them with other ones. For instance, “Fairy Godmother of Wishes” is the title the CEO of the Make a Wish Foundation uses. And you know what? In the context of the organization's work and motto, it is actually kind of cute, but the "Sales Ninjas" and "Happiness Heroes" that flood our LinkedIn pages are, well, silly. And meaningless. And incredibly annoying (to Pim, anyway).
Roles instead of job titles
Instead of using job titles—pretty much the norm in today's corporate world—today's progressive organizations have started replacing them with roles.
Each person can have multiple roles; they don’t necessarily have to be within the same discipline. For example, an accountant with a love for graphic design could have both roles in the same company.
So, what is the benefit of using roles instead of the hierarchy of corporate job titles? I can definitely think of a few.
Less ego, less blind loyalty
Back in the old days (and scarily enough, still today), titles drove hierarchy and respect. In an era where royals still ruled, loyalty to a title was greatly rewarded.
Unfortunately, not that much has changed in today's corporate world. The people with the big titles rule; democracy is nowhere to be found. And not all promotions go to the people who most deserve them.
No more unused talents
In many organizations, a promotion is not about merit but rather clever moves or strategic networking with management (i.e., kissing ass). However, without job titles, people are free to do what they’re good at—without the limitations of a title or job description.
To some, titles are about job clarity, but do you really need a title for that? And does this supposed clarity not lead to limitations? How often have you heard someone use their title to essentially say, “nope, that’s not my job.”?
No more job titles as goals
The higher the title, the more difficult it gets to move up. There is often more competition for the “big” jobs, and thus getting the title eventually becomes the goal. After all, once you’re in the cushy seats, you’ve made it, right?
In reality, the title serves no real purpose; a title is free for an organization to give. And, as we've all seen, they can also literally be made up—title inflation is a thing in many corporate environments.
Real success is celebrated
When you replace titles with roles, actual success is celebrated instead of networking (or ass-kissing) skills. For example, personal creativity gets rewarded instead of something a manager gets credit for.
Any organization will become more transparent when it rids itself of job titles, as doing so promotes free speech and the reward of talent and commitment.
There is more room for decision-making
Jobs higher up the hierarchy are scarcer, so there are fewer possibilities to grow. There is also the persistent fear of losing the position. And some managers will do almost anything to hold onto it—including not doing anything at all. That’s because a mistake can eventually lead to falling off the high horse.
This fear often leads to avoiding meaningful decision-making rather than being incisive. If you no longer fear losing your title, you are emboldened to be more decisive.
Promotion of collaboration and innovation
In the end, traditional titles put people in a box. Since one person can have multiple roles, a greater understanding of other aspects of the organization is cultivated across the entire workforce.
By eliminating job titles, you are not only eliminating the “that’s not my job” cop-out but also creating a work environment that encourages people to collaborate and make decisions together, leading to some serious cross-pollination.
Less dependent on powerful individuals
With roles instead of job titles, decisions can be made by teams, which helps to rid the notion of someone being "indispensable."
How to avoid confusion when eliminating job titles
Of course, some questions arise from this approach. When there are no defined job titles, how does an organization avoid confusion? How will all the work be done? Will everyone not just cherry-pick instead?
Fair enough. Let's address those.
Will the work get done?
If you give the team responsibilities of their own, the work will get done in a way the team members see fit. This can often lead to more efficiency instead of less.
Furthermore, if each employee can pick their role(s), will there still be tasks left over? That may be possible. But here’s a better question the team can ask: if no one thought the task was important enough to prioritize, how important is it then? Could it be eliminated altogether, automated, or possibly outsourced?
Taking a critical look at each workflow aspect is completely natural—it may even lead to some quick wins.
How can you avoid possible confusion?
The transitional period—from a traditional organizational chart to self-managing teams with roles—must be done carefully. It can be a little scary for existing employees, as eliminating titles can lead to unpredictability.
Luckily, a lot of great companies pioneered this transition, so we can learn from them. Zappos, for example, had a huge turnover of staff when it first changed management structures. This was anticipated; the company offered a very good severance package to those who wanted out.
Why? Because the company realized that a strong, dedicated group would stay put, providing a solid base for further growth and development.
Let me remind you again that this is not some radical idea that only a few contrarian organizations have implemented. Zappos certainly isn't alone—plenty of other progressive companies have done the same, and the results speak for themselves.
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