Despite the current management and corporate culture trend to boast “We have no titles at this company,” there are actually good reasons to have roles clarified within your organization. The desire to remove titles does make some sense: life and work change so quickly that a title that seemed to fit a month ago, no longer does so, and may start to create tensions around who does what and who makes decisions around changing work. Plus, there’s always the risk that employees become so focused on attaining the next title that they’re less focused on the work itself.
While working with creative teams, I’m often reminded of a scene from my favorite television show The Office when relentless power-seeking employee Dwight tries to solidify his position under manager Michael in the face of transfer employee Andy’s arrival from the Stamford branch:
Dwight: We need to talk!
Michael: Not now.
Dwight: Which is higher? Assistant Regional Manager or Regional Director in Charge of Sales?
Michael: I told you the titles are irrelevant. They just relate to pay scale.
Dwight: Okay. So who gets paid more? Me or Andy?
Michael: It is not a matter of more or less. Your pay is just different. Okay?
Dwight: Ok. Who reports to who?
Michael: I don’t care! Dwight! You all report to me! That’s all that matters! The rest of it just work out amongst yourselves, ok?
The exaggerated plight of Dwight’s title grab and Michael’s mismanagement make for good laughs on screen, but we see these behaviors and feelings in our real teams, too. A title has traditionally been the way employees carve out their scope of responsibility and provides a sense of where they fall in the pecking order—whether that’s an accurate reflection of their value or not.
Is the answer to eliminate titles completely? Perhaps… IF there’s a support structure to make sure that workflows well throughout the team. Without that structure, all sorts of dysfunction can occur. If there aren’t clear boundaries, turf wars can erupt over who does what work, and maybe more troubling, when things fall between the cracks because both teams assume the other team is handling the work.
An unclear structure can also lead to issues with decision-making, especially if the team leaders aren’t paying appropriate attention to shifting work and expanding responsibilities. As projects grow, leadership roles need to be delineated. Otherwise, all sorts of unnecessary behavior can show up.
Consider this example. Have you ever received an email or sat in a meeting where you suspected the sender or scheduler didn’t have the confidence that they could make a decision on their own, so their solution was to drag everyone involved into that meeting or thread just to make sure they wouldn’t get burned for making a decision?
If you, as a team leader, want to avoid these pitfalls, regardless of titles or not, I suggest you clearly clarify the following:
- Who is responsible for which areas of focus?
- Who is responsible for which projects and outputs?
- Who is empowered to make which decisions?
Let’s have a look at the meaning (and differences) of all three.
Areas of Focus
An area of focus provides a general overview of an individual team member’s responsibility.
If my area of focus is “client service” then I know that I should be keeping my eyes on anything and everything our team does that affects our relationship with the client. That doesn’t mean I have responsibility for all outputs created on behalf of a client, and it doesn’t mean I have sole authority over decisions about client work, but it means if the client is not happy, then there’s something I need to do to make sure that gets fixed.
Another area of focus could be Diversity. If this was my area of focus I wouldn’t necessarily be responsible for hiring staff, but I would want to place my attention on the diversity of my group’s hires.
Projects and Outputs
A step down from areas of focus are the projects and outputs that fall under that area of focus. The way I’m defining a project is a specific, longer-term outcome or finish line that we are looking to achieve.
Outputs are simply a series of repeated finish lines. Traditionally, they don’t vary as much as individual projects. An example of a project would be completing a campaign for a client, whereas the production of individual pieces of art would be the outputs. Regardless, it’s recommended that projects and outputs have a single point of responsibility so that everyone knows who is accountable for them.
Perhaps one of the biggest areas of unclarity in any organization is decision-making. If your team does not know who makes which decisions, you will see all sorts of wonky behavior in an attempt to gain clarity. That might take the forms I identified above: big CYA (cover your butt) meetings or big CYA emails or other unwanted behavior like power-grabbing or foot-dragging.
As a leader, if you are really serious about taking work off your plate, then delegating work needs to include delegating decision-making. There are varying ways in which decisions can include other points of view, and I’ve written an entire article about decision-making styles, which you can read here. But let’s focus this discussion around assigning decision-making authority.
Assigning decision-making authority needs to be explicitly and broadly communicated to make sure there are no questions about who has the appropriate authority. Otherwise, it’s most likely those decisions will eventually come back to you as the team leader. As I mentioned earlier, work is changing (growing/contracting/morphing) all the time, and to avoid conflicts and delays, a leader needs to be aware of what decisions are starting to show up that need to be assigned appropriately.
I recall one client who started doing increased philanthropic work which featured capturing video. All of the sudden, the Head of Video Production assumed they were in charge of everything pertaining to philanthropy (Their title IS Head of Video Production, after all…) but the philanthropic aspect was not in their area of focus. It took a few power struggles and false starts to finally get the decision-making alignment required to move the project forward.
The team can be its own great resource in this regard. If you task them with bringing the need for decision-making clarity to your attention, then you don’t need to constantly monitor what’s going on. You can then quickly let everyone know who’s responsible for the new aspects of the work, and then repeat and amplify that communication as necessary since it is new information.
In conclusion, my recommendations are to:
- Delineate roles, regardless if you prefer official titles or not.
- Assign roles to areas of focus, projects and outputs, and decision-making authority.
- Monitor those roles, and broadcast them as needed, which will probably be more frequently than you think.
How well are titles working (or not) for your team? Got any good Michael and Dwight-ish stories over there? Please let me know at email@example.com