Business Psychology

Article No. 358
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Fun at Work

New finding points to improved customer experience.

Most people who go to Disneyland come home with mouse ears, mugs, and snapshots. The senior leadership of the Make-A-Wish Foundation who attended a development conference at Disneyland came home with an idea.

At Disneyland, employees are introduced as cast members, and they're encouraged to invent their own job titles. These titles describe employees' unique values, identities, personalities, and talents. The leadership team at Make-A-Wish liked what they saw, and they decided to implement the idea in their own organization. They didn't abandon their existing job titles, and they didn't change their existing responsibilities. The titles they added were intended to "lighten up" the organization.

Make-A-Wish employees work with desperately ill children and their families. These children often die before their precious wishes can be fulfilled. It can get pretty grim around the office, yet grim isn't helpful to the children. The CEO wanted to help, so she became the "Fairy Godmother of Wishes." The CFO became "Minister of Dollars and Sense," and the database manager became the "Duchess of Data." Employees at all levels soon joined in, and a "Goddess of Greetings" (administrative assistant), a "Magic Messenger," a "Herald of Happy News," a "Wizardess of Wishes," and a "Merry Memory Maker" were soon on board. The mood lightened. Stress and burnout lessened, and employees started having fun and introducing fun to families who desperately needed it.

The goings on at Make-A-Wish came to the attention of Adam Grant from the University of Pennsylvania through two colleagues who had volunteered to help the Foundation improve its recruiting practices. Grant realized that he had a grand opportunity to measure the effect of a very simple idea, so he assembled a team and went to work. Self-reflective job titles had received a warm reception at Make-A-Wish, and employees had great success when they used their new titles in working with the children. Grant concluded that the new job titles had relieved emotional exhaustion (burn out) and had facilitated client interactions, but he wondered if the same change would have similar effects in other employment settings where emotional exhaustion was a problem. He chose a medical organization, and he created an experiment where some people tried self-reflective job titles, and others did not. In the medical setting, Grant found a significant effect for reducing emotional exhaustion; however, the new job titles did not enjoy the same widespread, warm reception at the medical center, especially in working with outsiders. Only a few of the medical staff used the titles in interactions with patients. Consequently, Grant failed to measure a beneficial impact for working with patients although the children who asked for nurse "Sure Shot" when it was time to get a vaccination might disagree.

Could self-reflective job titles help a retail business?

Retailers want their employees to enjoy their work, and they want their customers to enjoy shopping in their stores. Happy shoppers stay longer and spend more. Employees who have created self-reflective job titles enjoy them, and happy employees are better prepared to help shoppers have a good time. Imagine, for example, shoppers greeted by clerks with self-reflective job titles like these printed on their name tags: "Director of First Impressions," "Duchess of Dressing Up," or "Fabulous Foot Fitter." If these titles bring a smile to your face, it will have the same effect on your customers. They'll be expecting to have a good time from the moment they encounter a clerk and notice the name tag. It will be the beginning of an enjoyable experience shopping in your store.

Reference: Grant, Adam M., and Justin Berg, and Daniel Cable (2014) Job Titles as Identity Badges: How Self-Reflective Titles can Reduce Emotional Exhaustion. Academy of Management Journal, 57, No. 4, 1201-1225.

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Keywords: Self-verification, Psychological safety, Self-reflective job titles, Identity expression, Stress reduction, Job titles, Identity, and Emotional exhaustion. Consult Subject Index for related research.

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