Do we really need titles in the workplace?

Recently I’ve been reading of more and more companies eliminating titles from their organizations.

On April 28, the New York Times published results of an interview with Seth Merrin, CEO of Liquidnet, a trading network. Mr. Merrin talked about why he got rid of titles in his organization. Merrin said he wants employees to aspire to higher levels of responsibility, not higher titles. Furthermore, he doesn’t want anyone holding back from expressing an opinion because he or she might hold the most junior title in the room.

So a work group was formed and they came up with names for the functions that employees carry out for the organization, instead of titles. Mr. Merrin for example is a “shape,” as he and a couple of colleagues shape the future of the company. They also have “guides,” “drives,” “solves” and “creates.” Interesting, huh?

I’ve never put much stock in titles. They are sometimes good for feeding the ego, and a fancy title might coerce a prospective new hire to come aboard for less money than she’s worth. (Do we really want that person on board?) What bothers me is that titles separate us, can set employees against one another and fertilize the growth of little kingdoms within an organization.

Of course, people need to know who’s in charge. And yes we need managers — hopefully managers who practice coaching. But some energetic young companies such as Liquidnet are just sorting out the responsibilities in the organization by function rather than a hierarchy of titles.

All of this takes me back to my business that was headquartered in Milwaukee for more than two decades. At one of our holiday parties, we made a “stone soup.” The inspiration for this activity came from the now familiar research indicating that only about 20 percent of employees believe they use their top talents in their jobs.

I called all associates in our firm “stars” because that’s what they were. So at this holiday dinner, each star selected a pretty stone (collected from the shores of Lake Michigan) and wrote on the stone a word that expressed his or her greatness. We set modesty aside and thought carefully about our strengths. Then we made an arrangement of all the stones in the big soup bowl in the middle of the table.

Reflecting on that activity, and the way we operated together day to day, I thought how interesting it would have been that instead of titles we kept those stones in a prominent place to remind us of our greatest talents. Our titles might have been the words on the stones. People could check in with each other periodically to discuss how these talents were contributing to the organization. We might have had brass plates on our desks with words such as “inspire,” “stabilize,” “tell stories,” “celebrate,” “mentor” or “visualize” and “imagine.” And then stars could be free to swap the plates and try out someone else’s greatness if they wanted. I would call that professional development of a sort.

Throwing some traditional practices in the air and starting fresh with something outrageous can revitalize an organization. It might be eliminating titles, or something much more daring that emerges from mixing your imagination with knowledge of your corporate culture, plus taking dead aim at where you want to go.

Could be fun!

Jo Gorissen is a certified transition coach and a former Milwaukee area resident. Her web site is and she can be reached at (414) 305-3459.

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