It's not unusual these days to see people with unusual job titles. There's a Director of Chaos at Berkshire Hathaway and a Director of First Impressions at the reception desk of many companies. Google has a Captain of Moonshots. Some employees at IBM call themselves Data Detectives, and a former marketing team member at Quicken Loans held the
title Revenue Raiser.* Disney refers to some of its workers as Cast Members.
Such quirky, often customized job titles might seem pretty meaningless—a throwaway perk for low-level employees or an official expression of arrogance for top ones. But in certain situations they might do an awful lot of good for worker well-being. A new study of self-appointed job titles, published in the August issue of the Academy of Management Journal, suggests they can reduce emotional exhaustion among stressed-out employees.
The research, led by management scholar Adam Grant of Wharton, focused on the Midwest chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The people working there have a grueling, heart-wrenching job to say the least: many of the families place unrealistic expectations on the foundation; many of the kids don't live to see their wish fulfilled. As one employee told Grant and collaborators, "It can take a toll emotionally to see this daily."
A few years ago, during a trip to Disneyland, some Make-A-Wish executives learned about the "cast members" job titles and decided to let their employees invent titles, too. The CEO became the Fairy Godmother of Wishes; the COO became Minister of Dollars and Sense; PR managers became Magic Messengers or Heralders of Happy News; wish managers became Merry Memory Makers. The new titles supplemented official ones, appearing side-by-side on business cards.
Grant and company wanted to see what effect, if any, the change had on employee well-being. They conducted interviews with 22 staff members, as well as executives, volunteers, and affiliates. They conducted hours of observation on site. And they analyzed more than 100 archival documents—from newsletters to blog posts to meeting announcements—to track how employees themselves used their new titles in public.
The results were surprisingly strong, and overwhelmingly positive. About 85% of the interviewed employees said the new title helped them cope with the emotional exhaustion of the job; many brought it up unprompted. One wish manager told Grant and collaborators that the self-applied description helped her focus on the joy of her job instead of the hardship. "Staff may have a hard time doing this if they didn't have these titles," she said.
Why did such a small change make such a big difference? The researchers believe the new job titles provided self-verification, psychological safety, and external rapport. In less technical terms, the job titles helped workers express their own identity and personality, and put them at ease when interacting with others. The more that being yourself is part of your job description, the less reason you have to fake it even on the hardest days at the office.
"Our findings highlight a novel, practical process that enables employees to play an active role in reducing their own emotional exhaustion," Grant and company concluded. "[W]hen leaders encourage employees to reflect on—and then reflect out—their unique value through personalized titles, employees are able to express their identities in ways that contribute to a sense of affirmation and psychological safety, reducing emotional exhaustion."
Before you go calling yourself Capt. Moonshot just yet, consider some study limitations. The sample size was quite small (though the researchers did validate their findings in a quasi-experimental follow-up comparing health care workers who changed titles with those who didn't). Study methods aside, it's not tough to see the system going awry. An unprofessional title could corrupt a company image; an unfitting title could breed resentment among coworkers. Worst of all, companies might use the self-applied title scheme as a device to manipulate workers into thinking their jobs are better than they actually are.
In that sense, the strategy might have limited applications, and people who work with children seem particularly well-suited for it. The King of Cashola made kids laugh at Make-A-Wish, but it might not go over as well at Barclays. Kids remembered Nurse Quick Shot in the health care study, but the name might not fly in the ICU at Mass General. We may all love to visit Disneyland, but we can't all work there.
* An earlier version of this article suggested that more than one employee at Quicken Loans held this title. We regret the error.
title Revenue Raiser.*