Are you proud of your job title? Most people are--or, have a job title in mind that they're striving for.

Elon Musk, controversial CEO of Tesla, tweeted recently that he was eliminating his job title and calling himself "the Nothing of Tesla." Musk took the CEO label off his official biography, and claimed he couldn't see any difference in how he did his job.

So much for answering the question, "What do you do?" I suppose. Unless you're Elon Musk--then everyone already knows anyway.

For the rest of us, "What do you do?" is one of the oldest conversation starters in the book. The first thing you really want to know about somebody is, "Who are you when you're at work?"

In today's tech-heavy business world, where job titles might be something like "product evangelist" or "scrum master" (a title that only other scrum masters understand), it's hard to get an answer to that common question. It's increasingly difficult to tell from a title where someone perches on the org chart and what they do all day.

Maybe that's part of the point--traditional labels changed, because the kind of work we do changed.

It's a cross-disciplinary world; don't get caught thinking linear about work relationships. Maybe it's time to rethink the job titles where you do business.

Obviously (to people besides Elon Musk) you don't want to eliminate labels altogether. They serve to confer status and to give a name to an employee's accomplishments. They can even stand in for financial reward. Plus the obvious: HR departments usually require them. And you don't want to go all Silicon Valley and start calling everyone a "team member" as though you're part of the staff of a pizza-delivery store (and even there, they have managerial titles). But think about these three problems with job titles:

Problem 1: They draw boundaries.

"I'm the sales manager," one person might think. "So I don't need to think about our communications department or what it needs." Maybe the sales manager understands some things about the company's financial strategy that would help communications, only they don't talk to each other.

Solution: So un-draw them. Get ahead of the problem by engineering cross-departmental collaboration at all levels. Job titles aren't the only reason that people don't get together, but titles do limit interactions in ways that deserve attention.

Problem 2: They limit productivity.

If your company always sends the marketing manager to the trade show, then nobody else attends the trade show. Is that the best way to let your workforce soak up new ideas? And conversely, the employee only thinks only about what a marketing manager ought to be doing and nothing else. So much lost possibility for growth.

Solution: Give opportunities to everybody, at every level. Let everyone see that the company wants them to stretch. Watch the most unlikely people rise and shine. Equally, find out who has been promoted above the level he or she is ready for, or floated away from his or her most appropriate sphere. Now you've got data to make the whole company work better.

Problem 3: They are about individual rather than group achievement.

You don't really want employees fixated on their own achievements and goals; you want everybody playing on a team together. True leadership comes when you enable everybody to rise to a level even higher than those who mentored them, but that's only done when you're all playing a team sport, not running a footrace.

Solution: Leaders must think about and enable both kinds. As the saying goes, how old would you be if you didn't know how old you are? And what job would employees do at your company if they didn't know what their job title was? Translate that way of thinking across the entire staff, and imagine the changes.

Or how about simply changing your handle? The idea of creating snappy, non-traditional titles isn't new. Way back in the mid 90's, my title at The Tom Peters Company was "Vice President and Official Mouthpiece." It's still a conversation starter, and it looked great on my business card. In today's innovative world, this idea is better than ever. Consider developing your own compound title. In other words, a title that's both traditional (Vice President) and creatively descriptive (Official Mouthpiece).

Okay, maybe Mr. Musk was looking for attention by deleting his "CEO" title. Or maybe he was just being his characteristically edgy self. But he has a good point, which is that we all just might be focusing on the wrong thing when we obsess over people's titles. They could be limiting people and keeping your company growing in a straight line while your competition is growing outward in all directions.

Published on: Nov 15, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.