The conventional pecking order at a large corporation typically starts with the chairman of the board, flows to the C-suite, then expands into a panoply of presidents and vice presidents. While hierarchy of some sort is necessary to get work done, a hierarchical organizational structure can also cause intragroup conflict, feed office politics, and discourage employees from contributing ideas, says researcher Lindred Greer, Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. In fact, in one 2018 study, Greer and her colleagues looked at more than 200 work groupings and found that egalitarian teams were more likely to unite and pool resources, whereas hierarchical teams were more likely to have power struggles.
Aware of these pitfalls, some companies are actively looking for ways to disrupt and flatten their own hierarchies. MassMutual, a financial services firm ranked 123 on the Fortune 500 list, started their own such “cultural evolution” about five years ago. The goal: Break down traditional hierarchy in order to foster more collaboration, innovation, and employee engagement. One of their first moves? Getting rid of traditional corporate job titles.
No More Vice Presidents
Though a smattering of C-suiters remain at the top as required by law for regulatory purposes, MassMutual traded “Vice President,” “Chief Officer,” and other executive job titles that broadcast rank for ones that describe the work employees actually do at the organization. Today, “if you look around MassMutual, you won’t find vice presidents. Rather, our titles reflect what you do and what you contribute to the company,” says Amy Dias, MassMutual’s Head of HR Consulting and Talent Management (her previous title: Vice President, HR Consulting). “This change has created a more inclusive environment where all ideas and voices can be heard regardless of level.”
At this point, critical thinkers may be wondering: Does this move really have teeth, or is it just an exercise in semantics? If it’s done as part of a sincere effort to break down hierarchy, title changes “may indeed force some examination beyond job titles and put more emphasis on accomplishments,” says Steve Dalton, Program Director for Daytime Career Services at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and author of The Job Closer: Time-Saving Techniques for Acing Resumes, Interviews, Negotiations, and More. “Are [company leaders] doing it to flatten the organization? Are people buying into that, making people more accessible to one another? Or are they doing it to project that to the market, but not really living it?” Intent and follow-through make all the difference.
A Happier, More Agile Workforce
Leaving typical executive job titles behind may help diffuse some of the competition and tension created by hierarchical organizational structures—in other words, it can be liberating. Some employees “feel constrained by the hierarchical nature of traditional job titles. Someone with a ‘lesser’ title, for instance, might hesitate to share an out-of-the-box idea or challenge a suggestion made by someone with a ‘higher’ title,” says Lindsey Pollak, one of the world’s leading workplace experts, and the New York Times bestselling author of Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work.
This is exactly what’s happening at MassMutual, says Dias. “We’re seeing a mindset and cultural shift. By removing formal titles, we’re finding a deeper level of engagement and participation in business meetings and discussions as opposed to a more traditional environment where individuals may wait for the most senior ‘title’ to take the lead and weigh in first.”
That means good ideas—whomever they may come from—have a better chance of being implemented.
Flatter job titles also give ambitious, talented employees more opportunities to grow within your organization. Rather than getting frustrated—and leaving—when they reach a ceiling, employees are encouraged to try on different roles, including some that may in the past have been considered lateral moves, which can carry a false stigma in a typical climb-the-ladder culture. At MassMutual, “we have seen a transition of employees seeking new roles based on the experience it will provide, the development opportunity, and the potential exposure to more areas across the enterprise as opposed to seeking a new title,” says Dias.
Jennifer Cloutier, MassMutual’s Head of Strategic Development, has noticed a similar trend. The new titles have, she says, “simplified the concept of layers and hierarchy, freeing people to explore opportunities they may never have in the past ‘titled’ environment.” (Cloutier’s former title was Vice President, Strategic Planning and Delivery.)
Employee satisfaction and engagement at MassMutual is also up—way up. “In our most recent employee engagement survey conducted last summer, what is remarkable is that despite the majority of us being physically apart, we have remained a highly engaged, collaborative workforce,” says Dias. “Our overall scores were the highest we have ever seen.” Altogether, 84% of MassMutual employees reported that their work gives them a feeling of personal accomplishment, and employee pride in MassMutual reached an all-time high of 92%, up 14% from five years ago.
Potential Pitfalls—and How to Avoid Them
The hierarchy-smashing efforts at MassMutual have boosted employee satisfaction and engagement, but there are potential hitches to abandoning traditional titles that leaders considering a similar move should plan for.
“One of the drawbacks is for more senior employees who feel they have worked hard to achieve a certain title of seniority,” says Pollak. “This reminds me of the disappointment of some employees who had worked years to receive an office right before many companies got rid of offices for more open plan environments. There is a feeling of loss that is understandable.”
Leaders should normalize this discomfort, and “listen to employees who miss their titles and understand their ‘why,’” she adds. “This can also help you to come up with ways for employees to feel they are advancing without titles. If they want acknowledgment of their growth, think about offering badges, certifications, awards, or special projects. Employees of all levels want to feel a sense of advancement and momentum in their careers.”
To help make this happen in the absence of traditional title changes, she suggests employers and employees set meaningful career goals that don’t relate to title. Ask: “What is something you want to accomplish this year that will make you feel like you are moving forward? Or something you can accomplish that you can share on your LinkedIn profile or resume to show growth?” Pollak suggests.
Speaking of LinkedIn: MassMutual offers employees the choice of whether or not they want to update profiles with their new, less hierarchical titles. “As pioneers on this front, [we know that] apples-to-apples comparisons and understanding may not exist outside our walls,” says MassMutual spokesperson Paula Tremblay. “While we encourage our employees to align their internal titles with how they present themselves externally, we leave ownership in their hands.”
After all, ownership and buy-in are key when it comes to building an engaged, collaborative workforce—whether the org chart is full of “Vice Presidents” or not. Successfully eliminating hierarchical titles will look different at different organizations, but what successful campaigns have in common is that they go beyond words to create a true cultural shift, as has happened at MassMutual. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk, is how flattening job titles can go from well-intentioned wordplay to laying the foundation for a re-energized, collaborative, and engaged workforce. Some major players have already taken the first steps.