Organizational culture has been defined in various ways over a number of years. I think it’s fair to say they all point to a generic sentiment: “A shared and accepted context in which things happen within the organization.” A substantive element of this context is how things are defined, whether explicit or implied. Two things, often overlooked, that are usually not on a leader’s radar, which influence culture, are levers and levels.

LeversLevers are typically actions taken by individuals, or perhaps small teams. It is often an event – and could easily be a repetitive event – that must be initiated by the effort of someone. Levers can come in the form of emails, phone calls, fulfillment of role responsibilities (as in job description) and things of that nature. They are usually specific tasks that are designed to produce a specific outcome.

Levels, on the other hand, can seem not as straightforward as levers. No matter how flat an organization you have, there will always be a vertical element to it. A front-line manager will not, and should not, have the same responsibilities as a C-Suite executive. In that sense, every level has a different function and set of responsibilities. Each level also has a different set of levers to manage.

Nothing ground breaking about these two distinctions, I know. The friction begins when levels become treated as levers in an attempt to produce the ever exciting buy-in that makes things so warm and fuzzy. As an aside, buy-in happens when people are in engaged, not manipulated.

For example, a leader may have a need to delegate a few things. These things are typically viewed as levers – just some things that require action and will produce a certain result. The question that needs to be asked is: “To which level do these levers belong?”

The most common approach is finding a high capacity person who has the functional skills to properly manage the levers. A more effective approach is understanding the proper levels within an organization these levers can and should belong. Then it makes sense to find that high capacity person, within that level, with the proper functional skills. A reasonable exception to this could be for leadership development and succession planning efforts.

Ignoring and/or poorly managing this area will affect your organizational culture. It can leave employees feeling overwhelmed and under supported, which leads to cynicism and low quality work. Understanding which levers belong to which levels is a great way to refine your culture.

Here are a few tips to help keep levers and levels in check in your organization:

  • Define your levels – How many levels are naturally at work in your organization as you meet the demands of your target market? Notice I said based on target market demand, not arbitrary organizational structure development. Minimize these levels as much as possible in ways that make sense.
  • Assign levers – What are some common actions that typically take place? From a vertical perspective (not a value perspective), what is the lowest level certain levers should be assigned? Use these guidelines when delegating or assigning tasks for projects.
  • Make it simple – People use simple things and avoid complicated things, especially in the workplace. Color code the levels, or simply name them. Don’t create an environment where a meeting has to take place and a committee formed to determine which lever belongs in which level. If you get it wrong, then change it. No need to make a federal case out of it.
  • Review annually – The business environment is a fluid one whose change rate seems to be picking up steam every single year. Check to make sure the definition of your levels are still in line with the demands of your target market. Does it agree with your strategy? Business isn’t static and neither should how you manage the things which influence your culture.

This doesn’t have to be anything burdensome to add on top of your already crazy work load. It’s something that can work along side it as a means to make better decisions. It can be a simple question you ask when doing what you already do to manage your organization. “What’s the lowest level for this?” Then go on about your day.

How have you seen levers and levels influence organizations?