Cultural Aspects of Structure - Some Potential Traps

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Mawson Consulting assists businesses in establishing the right organisation structure and roles, so the goals of the business can be achieved.

March 2017

Having the right structure in place is essential to support the business in achieving its goals.  In addition to clarifying reporting relationships, a well designed structure allows the flow of work and the associated work systems to function more effectively.  How structural change is implemented will impact the perceptions employees have about the leadership of the business and employee contribution.  Outlined below are some possible traps in relation to structure.  Falling into these traps can have a negative impact on the culture of the business.

Bigger Number, More Important

Often the levels or strata in the business are labelled 1 to 6 or 7, with 1 being the hands on work and 6 or 7 being the head or CEO.  There can be a tendency for some people to view the roles at the higher levels as more important and those at the lower levels as less important.  Some businesses have tried to alleviate this issue by reversing the numbers but the problem is generally just reversed.

While the people at different levels do different work, all should make important contributions to the business.  It is worth reflecting on what would happen if the work at any level is not done effectively.

“That’s Donkey Work”

Linked to the point above can be the view that work at level 1 or the “hands on” work is “donkey work” not requiring a lot of brain power or skill.  Comments such as “anyone could do that”, “it’s just a level one job” indicate that this perception may be held by some people.  In devaluing the work, you also devalue the people who do it.

Many tasks at level one in the business require a high skill level and significant knowledge.  They are also frequently roles that have direct interaction with customers and can be the “face” of the business as well as directly affecting the quality of products or services.  They may include a lot of routine work which requires attention to detail.  Devalue this kind of work at your peril.  In capital intensive industries, these roles directly affect the performance on expensive machines.

“Service roles are mostly routine and mechanistic”

Sometimes the service work at all levels such as running a payroll or keeping the financial books is seen by some people as easier, routine and predictable.  Service work requires high levels of skill and knowledge and roles at different levels will have varying complexity.  Service roles complete essential functions for the business to continue to operate.  Support work can be viewed as having a higher status because it is directed at improving the business and often requires more novel solutions to issues.  In some businesses being on a project doing support work is one of the main ways to get ahead on your career path while being in a service role is a “dead end”.

“He’s just a level 1”

Labeling or grouping is a part of everyday life.  Few people would object to being called by their job title, for example, we are having a meeting with all of the trades people or, the managers are away on a workshop.  However, few of us like to be labeled with a number.  Being called by your payroll number or tax file number is dehumanizing.

“He’s just a level 1” or “the level 3s don’t need to know” are statements that label people as numbers.  People occupy roles – “Joe is in a level 1 role” or the “people in the level 3 roles” expresses this without the label.

Something else to bear in mind is that people occupy roles at work that may not be a full reflection of them as human beings.  Someone may be in a level 1 role at work and hold multiple roles in the community eg Chair of the School P & C or Head of the local SES branch. 

Up and Down is what counts

We frequently concentrate on the vertical relationships in the work structure such as the ones we have with our boss or the people that report to us.  There are also relationships with people who are in peer roles and in our work team.  There are people in roles to whom we provide information and or services or complete tasks.  Finally there are people in roles who provide information and or services or complete tasks for us.

These different relationships can become muddled.  People can end up believing they have many bosses where in fact they have one boss but do work that is required by others.  Mapping them out and understanding the differences provides clarity for role holders.

“That’s not my work”

It is important to be clear about your work and its boundaries.  However, some people come to believe that if they are in a role at a particular level, the only work they will do is of that same complexity.  For example, being in a level 3 role, means I only do work of 3 complexity and if it is work of 2 complexity that someone in a level 2 role should do it.

All roles will do a mix of work complexity and it will be sensible to complete certain related tasks rather than having someone else do them.  For example, as a manager in a Level 3 role, you may collect data, analyse it, do some photocopying as part of reviewing a departmental system.

“Just do it, I’m the boss”

Roles should be vested with the authority required for the related work to be completed.  Authority doesn’t translate into command and control.  When assigning tasks, people need to understand what is required, why, and to accept that the authority being exercised is legitimate.

Conclusion

No structural model is perfect and fits all situations completely.  Implementation of structure is done by human beings.  This means that there is scope with any structural model when you implement it for it to be used improperly.  Outlined in this paper are some issues that can arise with structure that may have a negative effect on the culture in your business.

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