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What might teal job titles look like?

Orange organization there are cookie-cutter, standard job descriptions for each role. These job descriptions are crafted based on the organizational structure within a stable system. Changing these solidified artefacts towards something more fluid and evolutionary is hard. As part of the teal series, this post looks at how to handle teal job titles and descriptions that reflect a teal way of operating.

Teal paradigms are known for equality and having a non-hierarchical structure. They are also known for their adaptable, ever-changing and fluid way of operating. Each project or iteration potentially will need different roles and responsibilities. In the organization, this is reflected by removing all job titles. Having everyone in the organization with the same job title, however, can be challenging and confusing. So how do you handle more fluid roles and maintain a level of stability and structure?

It makes sense to go back to basics first to look at the intent and purpose of job titles and job descriptions before redefining how teal job titles might be handled.

Back to basics

Just like street names and road signs are useful to navigate a new city and keep roads safe from collisions, so too department names, job titles, and other labels within an organization is useful to allow a new person to navigate their way around.

The primary purpose of job titles is to enable people to find the information they are looking for in an organization. Sometimes, for example, you might need to know how to apply for leave, in which case you will typically be directed to Human Resources. At other times, you might need information on which software tools to use or obtain login information, in which case you might be directed to the IT department. Or, you might need information on the business rules for a specific process, or maybe the architecture used, or who can help you test or fix something. Job titles help you to find the information you need.

Benefits of job titles

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Many organizations operating from a ‘teal’ paradigm throw out all job titles with everyone labelled associate or partner to reflect the flat hierarchy.  In practice, however, this isn’t reflective of how the organization operates. Everyone might be equal, but everyone is far from similar.  So let’s look at the most important benefits that make teal job titles useful.

1. Titles can streamline information

Just like naming the different organs and systems within a human body allows you to make meaning of a complex system, so too job titles help organize and make sense of a complex business system.  Titles help streamline the flow of information – arguably the most valuable asset – within an organization. It allows you to know how different people fit into a bigger structure.

2. Titles summarize each person’s strengths

Another benefit of a job title is that it tells you something about the qualities and skills of a person. The title of “Project Manager”, for example, typically implies good organizational and planning skills and possibly a strong, decisive personality. The title of “Developer”, on the other hand, implies an in-depth understanding of the architecture and the system (or part thereof) and typically a logical, detailed way of thinking.

3. Titles communicate skill levels

A third benefit of job titles is that it tells you the seniority and skill level you can expect from different people. It would be unfair to expect the same deliverables from a junior fresh out of school than from an experienced employee who has worked on many different projects or has superior skills in a specific area.

The shadow side of titles

With these benefits in mind, let’s have a critical look at why job titles can be harmful in an organization.

1. Titles reinforce hierarchy

The primary disadvantage of job titles, in my opinion, isn’t so much the allocation of titles but that it reinforces a hierarchy. It’s seen as a status symbol. People equate someone’s worth to the job title they hold.  In many cultures, people tend to define their core identity with their job.

Having a vertical career path and moving up the ladder to gain more decision-making power implies that the only way to have a voice in the organization is to become more senior. The consequence is that managers and executives are often seen as more important than the people on the ground, which I think is very inaccurate.

A business needs both juniors and seniors to succeed.  Just like a talented chef able to create the most delicious food is not more important in the overall restaurant system than the person serving it to the guest, or even the person making sure the bathrooms are sparkling clean, so to each person in an organization contributes something of value to the overall success of the organization.   Job titles tend to make some people more important than others which can be harmful.

2. Titles encourage competition and create silos

Another shadow of job titles is that it encourages competition within the workplace. This creates a silo which in turn can create information blockages. Most people are familiar with the consequences of silos in an organization.

Although titles are not the single cause of this competition, it is a very big part of it in most companies.

3. Titles tend to fit round pegs into square holes

Each person is unique, like a fingerprint. Having specific job titles, and particularly rigidly defined job descriptions, tend to fit people into a particular box. This limits personal growth and the ability for someone to express their excellence to a large degree.

One person, for example, might be a Product Owner who loves doing customer support. They are strong on the details but maybe lack product vision. Another Product Owner, however, might be strong on vision and find needing to be responsible for customer supports limits her to look at trends and overall patterns. Defining what and how a person can contribute to a system is like fitting round pegs into square holes. It doesn’t work well.  To get the most out of your most valuable resource you need to allow space for them to excel at their unique skills and strengths.

Taking both benefits and disadvantages into consideration, let’s look at how typical ‘orange’ organizations handle job titles and job descriptions.

Orange job titles

In a more traditional ‘orange’ organization there are industry-standard job titles. It can be compared to a puzzle piece where there is a checklist to find a perfect fit to complete the puzzle.

The key characteristics of typical ‘orange’ training include:

1. Industry standard titles

Although different organizations may have different understandings of a specific job title, on average, job titles are known and understood within any industry. Most people, for example, share an understanding of what the role of project manager, designer, developer, customer support specialist, marketing manager, accountant, etc. may entail.

Finding a puzzle piece to complete your organizational puzzle will typically start with this job title, followed by a more specific and unique job description. This job description typically outlines a list of responsibilities, skills, qualifications, and experience required for the job.  It clearly defines the boundaries of decision-making and responsibility.

The focus is predominantly on academic achievements and previously having had similar job titles when selecting a candidate.

2. Clear career progression

In a traditional ‘orange’ organization there is a clearly defined hierarchy in a vertical career path. Although it is possible to move horizontally, success is usually measured by climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. Once you reach the top, going back to a more tactical role is usually seen as negative, even a demotion.

The career progression plan is clearly defined and in larger organizations, there are specific requirements as to how long you have to be in a role in order to progress to the next level. This makes movement within an organization hard.  Restructuring typically is something big and slow and impacts everyone.

3. Boundaries around decision making

Probably the most significant difference between ‘orange’ and ‘teal’ organizations is how boundaries around decision-making are defined.

In a typical ‘orange’ organization roles have clear boundaries around responsibilities and decision-making. A junior person has little to no decision-making power, whereas a senior has much more decision-making power.

The job title defines the decision-making power of any individual.

Teal job titles

Rather than viewing job titles as puzzle pieces that have to be a perfect fit to complete the picture, in a ‘teal’ organization a more suitable metaphor is that of a jazz band.  Each member is equally skilled in the basics of music, and has mastered an instrument to such an extent that they are able to improvise and respond easily.  The band members complement each other and play together in an aligned, harmonious way.

An organization operating from a mainly teal paradigm is distributed, meaning there is no hierarchy or career ladder to follow. In such a fluid structure each person can become anything and change is the status quo. There are no managers or bosses.

Below are the key characteristics in more detail:

1. Titles don’t reflect decision-making power

Job titles don’t reflect decision-making power within an organization as in a typical ‘orange’ organization. Boundaries in terms of decision-making are defined on a project level.

Decision-making is distributed in a ‘teal’ organization. Self-organizing and autonomous teams have full decision-making power. The person who discovers the problem is the one to respond to it. No one waits for the manager to decide or has to ask permission.

2. Roles rather than titles

Titles in a ‘teal’ organization reflect a specific role rather a defined list of responsibilities. The roles are like containers for a core function of the organization. For example, Livesciences have a core purpose of catalyzing change. The primary role within the organization is that of catalyst. There are, however, also other roles such as talent, growth and administrators.

What makes it different is that the role of catalyst isn’t a role well-known in the industry, like “Consultant” or “Agile coach”. It is more specific to the core purpose of the organization. Thus, the primary difference is that role labels support communicating the purpose of the organization to the outside world.  It’s not fitting existing roles and titles to the organization, rather, it is creating roles and titles to reflect the unique structure of the organization.

3. Personality please!

Another key characteristic of a teal organization is the concept of wholeness. That means each person can bring their whole self to the office – whether virtual or in person.   They don ‘t have to leave their soul at the door while they step into their professional persona.  They bring their personality, likes, and dislikes – of course with respect for others – to the workplace.

While the roles help give form to how a person fits into an organization, each person can choose their own ‘tagline’.  These taglines typically highlight an individual’s strengths.

Going back to Livesciences, each catalyst is uniquely described to the world.  There is the “chameleon” and the “equalizer” or the “walking library”.  No two catalysts are exactly the same.  They are no longer defined by what they do, but who they are.

4. Needs based job descriptions

Another key difference is that a typical ‘teal’ job specification, compared to the ‘orange’ checklist of skills, is that it is much shorter, often only one or two paragraphs of text. Job descriptions are typically more conversational compared to the bullet list of an orange checklist of requirements for any roles. It explains the need that the role hopes to meet, not the solution.

This is often in the form of describing the problem and constraints around the role. For example, in a software development environment, one developer might be an excellent problem solver but don’t have the technical experience.  Another might have the technical experience but might not be strong problem-solving skills. Rather than say no to both because they don’t meet the checklist, they might be considered, possibly even pairing the two.  In essence, it’s not about finding a perfect fit.  It’s about discovering the qualities and skills and making space for that.

Purpose and attitude is more important than skills.

Getting from orange to teal

Below is a possible roadmap to transition to a more teal way to handle job titles.

1. Define the core roles

Foundational to a teal way of operating is defining the purpose and the roles needed to achieve this purpose. The first step to transitioning to a teal way of operating is to take a step back and strategically define the core roles, or circles of responsibility within the organization.  What are the core skills and capabilities you need to achieve the organizational purpose?

Define these core role definitions in a collaborative process where all the voices are included from the get-go, for example with an appreciative inquiry workshop.

2. Add roles to existing job titles

Once the core roles have been agreed upon, add these roles to the existing job titles for a transitional period. The old job titles remain unchanged while the new roles are tried on for size and adapted if needed.

Start referring to the roles and adapt all communication – whether internal or external – to reflect these new roles.  Give everyone the authority to amend any documentation or artefacts within the organization that reflect the old job titles.

Whenever a new person is hired, refer to the new role. Rather than explicitly replacing job tiles, allow the old job titles to naturally disappear over time.

3. Personalize titles

Finally, once the roles are accepted and readily used within the organization, it’s time to add some personality and invite each person to personalize their tiles or taglines to better reflect their unique contribution and their strengths.


Handling job titles is possibly the hardest part of a teal transformation.  Who will you be in an organization where there are no bosses?

Teal organizations are whole organizations.  Each person is as unique as a fingerprint and brings their whole self to work.  Job titles reflect this goal of wholeness.  Job titles also reflect that there is also no hierarchy, only a shared purpose everyone works towards.  No one person is more important than the next.  There are only different jobs to be done in order to achieve this purpose.

Are you ready to transition to a more teal way of working?

Originally published in People Development Magazine: