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You Can Call Me Al, or Why Job Titles Matter

“You can call me anything,” an EMS leader declared. “It’s not the job title, it’s the job I do that counts.” But his title mattered more than he was willing to admit. Later in the conversation, when someone suggested changing his title to better match the structure of his organization, he suddenly became angry and protective of his title. What is it about job titles?

On most days we don’t give titles a lot of attention. But start messing with titles and watch people engage. Watch the passion rise among field staff around the issue of calling all field providers 'paramedics.' Check out the ubiquity of the title “chief” on the leadership page of the International Association of EMS Chiefs website.

Note the importance of titles when people introduce themselves at a conference. Consider the feelings you have around your own job title. Is it the one you really want? Is there another you wish you had?    

Titles are important signifiers. Along with uniforms, stars, bars and badges they are indicators of positional power and authority. Titles shout messages about the organization and the person. This is an invitation to pause and reflect on job titles from a leader’s perspective.

A dearth of uniformity and meaning

The EMS industry in the U.S. has a dizzying array of job titles. There are directors, chiefs, presidents, executive directors, CEOs, administrators, managers, coordinators and general managers. We have operations chiefs, deputies, operations directors, managing directors, division chiefs, associate directors, assistant chiefs, battalion chiefs, supervisors, leads, shift leads, coordinators, captains, lieutenants, sergeants, basics, intermediates and on and on.

All of this title vertigo is a testament to the hodgepodge development of EMS. Two not-for-profit EMS agencies in the same county can share borders and have similar operations and yet one titles its positions like a club and the other like the military. A hospital service down the road has position titling that mirrors typical hospital departmental structure. And further down the road a fire department with traditional fire service titles interfaces with a private transport company with titles straight out of the for-profit corporate world.

Determining if this has a significant impact on everyday mission success is difficult to say. In asking around some say “no,” but many are suggesting that the lack of uniformity creates complexities that show up on scenes, in political settings, in making jobs meaningful for new generations and in personal career development. 

An executive director sees her title as a handicap when leading an MCI where “chiefs” have more recognition. The “chief” of an organization with a rigid military structure is finding millennials turned off by bars and stars. A CEO admits that his title is a liability as he seeks a subsidy for low volume 911 operations. A captain, planning a career move outside EMS, wonders if his title would be viewed as providing the needed managerial experience. The EMS Director of a county-owned third service complains that he struggles for recognition when his equals in the county have titles such as fire chief, police chief, and sheriff.

Adding to this lack of common nomenclature is a paucity of common meaning. For example, what one organization calls a director may not have the same meaning or represent the same organizational layer or function in another.

The personal side of job titles

We often underestimate the social significance and personal identity issues that are embedded in the labels we wear. The leader who said, “You can call me anything,” is reflecting a common desire to show ourselves as selfless and completely comfortable with who we are without a title. But self is largely a social construct, and from the perspective of social psychology, job titles figure prominently into how we construct ourselves in today’s world.

We may not like to admit it, but we are always thinking, evaluating and perceiving ourselves and constructing an internal description of who we are. This self-concept impacts how we show up, take action, make decisions and display confidence. It is integral to our ability to influence others, and the titles we wear are a prominent part of the confidence we need to lead.

When we have a title we respect and are proud of, the title compliments the story we want to tell about ourselves and we will often act with more confidence. The opposite is also true. When a provider believes that the rocker on her shoulder that says “Basic” is a “less-than” title, it may impact how she sees herself and acts.

Notice your personal relationship with your title. When do you proudly use your title and when don’t you? Imagine going a month without using your title to describe yourself. 

Job titles and the organization

In today’s work milieu job titles are critical parts of who we are, as well as a reflection of an organization’s structure. They speak to the organizational layers, the job functions and the responsibility and accountability of the person with the title. In an ideal world job titles would accurately reflect structure and function and communicate to others (both inside and outside the organization) meaningful information about the position. 

An unchangeable inheritance

So, if job titles are so important, why don’t we give them more thought and attention? It’s simple. We see job titles as an unchangeable inheritance. Long ago, when the organization was created, a structure and titling system was chosen.  And the old “we’ve always done it this way” continues to chain the organization to its history.

Here is a leader’s thought: inheritance need not be destiny. Your organization should not be imprisoned by a system that was decided long ago and decided without an understanding of today’s issues and needs.  

Taking the leader’s perspective and action

Great leaders are continually asking, “where are we headed?” and “what needs to change, be improved, be created or stopped on our path to getting there?” I’m convinced individuals, organizations and the industry could benefit from giving more attention to job titles. Job titles should:

  • Match the vision and direction of the organization
  • Enhance the actual doing of the job
  • Be understandable outside the organization
  • Be compelling to those who wear the titles

At a minimum, we need to be able to tell the younger generations a compelling story about the “why” of the job titles we have. 

So what can you do? Begin a conversation about job titles in your organization. We think together by holding conversations. Here are some questions to seed that conversation:

How do you feel about your current job title? If you could change it to bring more pride, respect and career opportunities, what would it be? What is the history of our titling system? Was it simply inherited? Have we become imprisoned by it? Does our current titling systems make sense? Does it serve our mission? What do the frontline people want? What messages do we want to send? Do our titles serve our vision of the future? What does the public expect and why? Does our titling system contribute to the positive development of leaders? 

This conversation may result in a need or opportunity for you to lead change. At a minimum, it should ensure that the story you tell around your job titles is compelling and consistent with organizational direction.