What’s in a name—job title inflation hits project management

Today I am pleased to have a guest post on a very interesting and appropriate topic for the current business climate—job title inflation.  Dr. McGraw has been looking at human performance and job competencies for many years and we are pleased to have her share thoughts on this subject as it applies to the project management, PM and IT.

Job Title Inflation

Guest Post by Dr. Karen L. McGraw, President and Principal Consultant, Silver Bear Group

Depending on your company’s culture, job titles may be just a string of words that are basically irrelevant to the real world outside of human resources or they may signal responsibility, pay, and perks associated with a position. When should a project manager or PM care about job titles? I can think of three situations where job titles and especially the inflation in job titles matter to Project Managers.

  • When other people in your organization care
  • When you are hiring a project manager from the outside
  • When you are compiling your resume

I did a quick and admittedly informal and not-comprehensive search of job titles used in the marketplace for positions that most of us would think of as project managers. What I found was fascinating and a bit disturbing. Here’s a quick list of some of the descriptors and qualifiers:

Implied level of responsibility and authority

Optional Qualifiers

Deputy IT
Associate Software
Principle Systems
Assistant Director
Senior Group
Lead Development
Supervising Supervising
Chief Product

There are no laws or universal rules about job titles for project managers.  Unfortunately, they vary both across and within organizations.  Are you an Associate Project Manager, a Task Lead, a Project Manager, a Sr. Project Manager, or a Program Manager?   What differentiates each of these titles? Is it random, is it time in the actual role, is it the number or size of projects managed, or is it based on clear job definitions and competencies that require different levels of skills by job role or title? I have assessed many organizations and job positions. In one particular organization we analyzed exemplary project managers and unfortunately found that competencies and skills had little to do with the title. Instead, people had come into the organization with a particular title and no one questioned if that level of title was appropriate to the job to be done in the new organization.  Job title inflation requires that you carefully consider not just the past title on a resume, but the outcomes that person actually produced in a previous project manager position. You may find that the Assistant Software Project Manager was in reality the code developer who took notes during staff meetings.

How did this title inflation come about? Betsey Stevenson, professor of business and public policy at Wharton suggests that job title inflation, “seems to go hand in hand with the flattening of the organization. People want to be distinguished in some way from everyone else, but in a flat organization there is less hierarchy and therefore less opportunity to be distinguished.”

You can learn some fascinating facts and insightful observations about how job title inflation came to be in “Chief Receptionist Officer? Title Inflation Hits the C-Suite”.

The HR Capitalist suggests that job title inflation may occur if:

  • Limited funds
  • Retention Concerns
  • Customer Clout
  • Internal Equity

Job descriptions and competeny models that support job titles can go a long way to removing job title inflation for project management. We use a tool called Project DNA to analyze project manager performance and document the important competencies and behaviors for each project title. When you are looking to hire or contract with a project manager from outside your organization, use the model that you have developed as a benchmark to look for job responsibilities or duties that closely mirror the outcomes you expect the project manager to produce. Do not be sucked in by a similar title, believing that implies similar capabilities.

Some companies care little about job titles, but in a company that does care, being simply a “project manager” may place you in a disadvantageous position when you are competing for resources against someone else with an inflated title. In terms of your organization, figure out how important job titles are in gaining resources and perks for your team and play the game by their rules. But document the capabilities, competencies, skills and outcomes you expect from each title to ensure that the people you staff can deliver performance and projects on time and on budget.

About the Author:
Dr, Karen L. McGraw, “The Performance Doc,” is the president and a principal consultant at Silver Bear Group. She is an accomplished organizational consultant and coach specializing in business consulting, individual performance improvement, organizational performance improvement, leadership, and change. For over 30 years, she has helped clients achieve desired outcomes through process, training, technology, and change projects. Prior to Silver Bear Group, she founded Cognitive Technologies.  Dr. McGraw is a co-developer of Performance DNA, the leading methodology for analyzing and improving human performance, EASE, a practical change management process, and the Human Capital Capability Scorecard (precursor to the McBassi Index). She has published 6 books and over 50 articles or white papers on topics ranging from knowledge engineering and performance support, to employee collaboration, change management, and performance improvement. Her most recent book (2014) is Breaking Tape: 7 Steps to Winning at Work and Life,

To learn more about Silver Bear Group, visit www.silverbeargroup.com  or to reach Dr. McGraw directly, contact her at Karen@silverbeargroup.com.

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