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I’ll level with you: “Levels of Work” tips and traps

Side on shot of a partially lit staircase

By Sam Robinson

A useful model that supports people to work well together in an organisation is the concept of “Levels of Work”. Familiar to many, it’s also one of the toughest things to grasp for people new to organisational theory (for an explanation, see the Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations book).

Essentially, Levels of Work proposes that work differs in complexity in organisations and the predominance of a certain level of complexity determines the Level of Work. (When work tasks are grouped together, this is called a “role”.) By complexity, I’m talking about the range and degree of ambiguity in variables having an impact on decision-making.

If you’ve ever worked at different levels in a large organisation, there are plenty of examples you’ll be familiar with. The first entry-level job you had when you came into an organisation is likely to have had fewer variables and a shorter impact horizon for your decisions than your later, more senior roles. For example, someone working in a team on a construction site laying the foundations for a new building is performing different work to someone leading a construction crew and being concerned with things like materials being ordered on time, the well-being and productivity of individuals, and the whole project moving forward as it should.

Levels of Work, once understood for the first time, is a real light bulb moment. Helping to shine a light on the actual value that an individual role should add to an organisation often entails reflection that opens a whole new world of understanding about work. For me, it helped me to understand my frustration with managers I’ve had in the past who dipped down and tried to work at “my” level.

But be careful.

Levels of Work – in its most useful application – should never be used in a binary or one-dimensional way. All of us should, indeed must, do work of different levels of complexity and not just focus on a single level of work.

For example, a manager with a team of five people might have a predominant Level of Work at three. That means the manager is focused on the design of organisational systems – for example an HR Manager making decisions about the design of a recruitment system or an Operations Manager changing a major production process. But to do that, the Manager also needs to understand what incremental improvements might be necessary within that system – that’s work at two. And they’ll also most likely need to do some work complying with the organisation’s remuneration system – work along a well-worn path with little discretion to make changes. This is work at Level one.

Needless to say, the application of this model – to be useful – must be flexible and sensitive. It can be easy to cause offence and turn a person off the model for good, especially through the abhorrent practice of calling a human being a ‘Level x’. Consider this unacceptable. This is essential not only for the model to be a useful and practical one, but also goes to the heart of decent human interactions, i.e. that we don’t treat each other like numbers or objects. This misuse has given the concept of Levels of Work a bad name for a lot of people – for good reason, as poorly applied it can be a disaster.

Applied well and constructively, Levels of Work can really help you get an insight into the value you contribute and what you might do to help yourself and others you work with.

At LKS Quaero, we help leaders to create the right culture through systemic change and leadership development. If you’d like to know more, visit us at lksquaero.com or follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

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