What’s in a Job Title? – The Psychology Behind Proper Job Titles

by | Jul 21, 2010 | Blog, Performance Management

  • Amy Letke

    Amy Newbanks Letke, SPHR, GPHR, is the Founder of Integrity HR, Inc. Amy provides workplace solutions to improve performance, reduce liability and increase profits. She is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs and business owners achieve success. Contact us for more insights - 502-753-0970 or info@integrityhr.com

The Importance of Job Titles:
  • “What was your last position called?”
  • “Was that an appropriate title?

These questions are among the many that the hiring managers at Zappos.com, a wildly successful online shoe company, ask of their job candidates.  Why in the world do they ask such things? Because they know job titles have a lot larger effect on people than simply determining what pay grade they should be at within the company.  There are deep psychological effects that are often difficult to recognize.

Zappos understands that if there is a disconnect between the duties of the person and the job title, that often times a person will not be able to adequately do their job because they are not viewed by others within the company to have the authority to do so.

For example, I can recall an experience when a friend of mine was expected to take on a management role at the same level in the chain of command of those workers who were being overseen, i.e. this person was operating in a management role without being given a management title.  What happened was that as hard as this person tried they could not get these employees that had been told to listen… to listen. In this situation there was a disconnect between this person’s title, and their responsibilities.

This wasn’t an issue lack of management skills.  In fact this person was highly successful manager at a previous job. This was an issue of another kind of a authority, the credibility difference that naturally exists between having titles like “Manager” or “Supervisor” and titles like “Coordinator”, “Assistant”, “Specialist” or whatever the case may be. “Authority” is one of the Six Psychological Principles of Persuasion that Robert Cialdini, a famous Behavioral Psychologist lists in his classic book “Influence.”  It has large implications in business.

Cialdini recognized that by nature, humans have a higher regard for the direction and input of authority figures (those with the innate credibility of managers, supervisors, bosses, etc.) in the workplace.  Humans are literally psychologically programmed to listen to authority.  If we do not feel that someone is credible, we are far less likely to listen.

So What’s the Lesson?

Be consistent with your job titles. If someone needs to be in a position of authority it is not enough to simply tell his or her future subordinate(s) to listen without issuing a title change. Psychologically this person is still viewed as an equal unless a formal change is made.

That’s just the first part of the argument though. There is another very deeply rooted psychological effect that job titles have on people.  We’ll discuss that in the next post.

Until then, think about those individuals that you could not do without who you trust to maintain order and productivity within your organization. Have they been given the proper authority and tools to do so?

Have you ever encountered a situation like this?  Feel free to share your comments.

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