State Your Business
Why what we call work matters
I'm a big Dave Eggers fan and thought The Circle was brilliant. Now in his latest, The Every, Eggers’ pitch-perfect ear picks up on the baffling language and day-to-day contradictions of how many of us work now, especially at leading-edge companies who follow the Silicon Valley trend of likening work to play while actually being dead serious about it.
The Every begins with a prescient quote from Willa Cather: “Give the people a new word and they think they have a fact.”
Here’s a real-world example. Many companies are starting to create job titles and work environments with an eye to recruiting new talent that borrow heavily from pop culture. The idea is often to show that the employer has a sense of humor– translation: “this is a fun place to work”– and to suggest that whoever takes the job will not simply be slotting into some pre-defined role but can aspire to letting their creativity flow. All while benefiting from a spirited and innovative milieu.
The job titles, which can be found in the C-Suite as well as among new hires, typically start with a descriptor of the actual tasks to be performed or area of service: digital imaging, customer care, product development. They then add a noun-title that is both flattering and a bit over the top. While some of these are brilliant, many are absurd or downright confusing. Some choice (and actual) examples include:
Principal Digital Imaging Agitator
Corporate Communications Genius
Quality Assurance Rockstar
Disruptive Innovation Mahatma
Strategic Intelligence Guru
Event Planning Superhero
Chief Happiness Officer
In-House Graphics Svengali
In some cases, as with the last three examples, it’s anyone’s guess what the person does all day. And this points to a bigger problem than just sounding silly. What, for example, are the implications for performance reviews? How does one evaluate whether an employee has fulfilled their Jedi-hood or not? And doesn’t the overstatement create an implicitly high bar?
Although companies may create hip titles and work environments in an effort to inspire their talent, they run the risk of trivializing or misrepresenting the actual nature of the day-to-day work. This can confuse new hires or give the impression that the chief purpose of the organization is to provide workers with a meaningful life, rather than an actual job.
One young worker who recently joined a cutting-edge company in Amsterdam told me, “everything about my job is awesome except for the work.” But how long will his bedazzled state last? And how long will the Retail Jedi, stuck behind a cash register all day, continue feeling that she’s a valued and creative member of her team, as her title implies?
Berkley Sociologist Alrie Hoschild coined the phrase ‘emotional labor’ to mean “the work for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job.” Cool titles and work environments often get this emotional equation wrong, raising expectations almost primed to lead to let-down.
Next week I’ll look at what happens when the feeling for your job and the reality of it collide.