Business Times

Going ‘beyond the title’

Think about some of the titles you have? How have you come to acquire them? And how about the labels you have tagged on to others?

Look around and you will find titles and labels for everything. And this simplifies our world. They help us to categorise, thereby greatly helping us to process information easily and fairly quickly. However, forget not that titles demand that one plays a role which is either explicitly or implicitly defined. First, think of a manager’s job description that lists the job specifications, and now think of all the undocumented tasks a manager is expected to fulfil by the organisation, in an implied psychological contract.

We have titles for a reason. In the workplace, the building blocks of an organisational structure are the positions, and the titles that come with them. This gives order and helps organisations to have a sense of control over who is doing what. It also helps companies to plan, structure and restructure, place authority, freedom and power, so that leadership becomes clear. Titles are important in attracting the right person with the right set of skills and attitudes, in selection, in succession planning, career guidance and performance management.

Titles are important and serve their purpose as expected, till we get overly identified with them and the roles that come with it. On a negative note, they can be used to one’s advantage, thereby using it as a power tool to coerce people. They render definitions of who we are and a self image that makes us feel important and powerful. With titles, functions and roles, are also role-playing. It was not until recently that I was completely blown away by the realisation of how we role play when we go to see a doctor. My mother has been battling with an unidentified illness for months. Feeling utterly frustrated by the lack of time and empathy some consultants now allocate for each patient, it was not until we took her to the most recent consultant (12th doctor for your record), that I realised how profoundly embedded role-playing is in this profession.

When we meet a physician, we become the patient. The patient talks first and then the physician talks; the patient listens and what they say becomes gospel truth. Sometimes, when we try to question them further, some become restless and are eager to finish writing the prescription. Shocking is the little attention to detail certain physicians are able to mobilise nowadays, leading them to misdiagnose and order the wrong operation, which was evident in this current example. Luckily, we wanted to seek a 12th opinion.

There are exceptions to the rule; when we met the last consultant, who took 15 minutes to listen to my mother’s complaints and to read all the past records and outputs of the MRI (as opposed to the one prominent output read by most of the other doctors), we were astounded by his humble approach. How scarce is such a quality that is almost fundamental in treating people? This doctor, in his most humane service, opened our eyes to what true professionalism in medicine is all about. For him, my mother was not a mere patient in his consultation list; my mother was a human being reaching out for his expertise.

Globally speaking, complete identification with a title or a role makes human interactions unauthentic, dehumanised and alienating. The functions people have in hierarchical organisations such as the military, government sectors or a large corporation, easily lend themselves to becoming role identities. In such role identities where people may get lost in their roles, it is almost impossible to be who we are and do what needs to be done to the best of our ability.

So what can you do, to not lose yourself in our titles and roles? It is not how you define yourself to others, but how you define yourself to you. You can begin by defining yourself as a human being, as opposed to an accomplished designation. Your qualifications, training and prestigious titles only partially speak of who you are. You are much bigger than a title that says lawyer, accountant, professor, sir or CEO, or MBA, MBBS, LLB or PhD. Also, think about your roles as temporary and that you have to leave these titles behind one day. It is always good not to get too attached to anything that makes you lose yourself in them.

Titles and labels are limiting; they require us to act in a way so we could belong to a particular category, thereby conforming to the norms surrounding them. This hinders true authenticity which has a huge bearing on how we relate to others and how satisfied we are with ourselves. It is the call of duty and not the call of title that matters in any profession. Titles have their time and place and serve a purpose in that time and place only.

In your mind, you may find that not giving yourself a label is much more liberating, as it opens up many avenues to be whoever you want to be. Of course you can strive for titles that speak of your achievements, but let it be something that speaks of what you do in your professions rather than of who you are.

(The writer is a Business Psychologist by profession who works in Colombo and can be reached at

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