Levels of Work Complexity and Job Grade: Are they the same?

Currently, many organisations utilise requisite organisation principles (based on the work of Elliott Jaques) to design their organisations, and to subsequently match individuals to the work complexity as part of talent management and succession planning. A job grade could have the name “job level” or even “job classification,” depending on the company.

Within this context, it is tempting to draw a linear correlation between job pay grades and levels of work complexity in organisations, and broad correlation matrices are sometimes used to equate the two.

However, job grade and work complexity are not always the same, unless one is able to justify that the underlying criteria for both are similar. Some grading systems, for example, will rely strictly on some of the criteria relating only to work complexity. In other systems, complexity of decision-making may be used as an initial framework for broad job grades. The unfavorable effects of mismatched task and outcome interdependence on job satisfaction and job commitment were found to be mitigated by high levels of job complexity. In many cases, however, the job grading system takes into account a range of other factors, some of which are not necessarily directly related to what we typically understand by work complexity. When we determine the complexity of work for organisational design purposes, we typically consider:

  • The extent of uncertainty in the work environment
  • The nature of the task
  • The number and diversity of internal and external stakeholders
  • The time span of discretion before results are seen
  • The degree of constraint/autonomy present
  • The number and type of variables taken into account when making decisions

However, many role grading systems, will also take into account additional factors, such as:

  • The diversity of tasks
  • The consequence of error
  • Financial budget and other resource responsibility
  • Time taken to train someone for a role
  • Physical effort/pressure
  • Level of Education/skills required
  • Years of experience required

In complexity-based grading systems which also include some of the above factors, one may see a broad correlation with work complexity, but the accuracy of this will also depend on the extent to which the grading system has been customised for the organisational context. In addition, we should also be mindful that there are a fair number of exceptions where grade and work complexity could be quite different from the correlations proposed. e.g., a role requiring a highly qualified and experienced Engineer which may be at a high grade due to non-complexity related factors, and is required to operate in a far less complex environment than what the corresponding grade might suggest. Thus, organisations and managers should provide employees with opportunities to craft their jobs to achieve a better balance between job demands and resources, which will lead to positive outcomes. Furthermore, instead of focusing on the beneficial and motivational effects of job complexity, organizations also need to adopt a more balanced view that also considers the potential strain effects of challenging jobs.

An example of the discussion above is illustrated below, as well as some exceptions that have been observed:

Picture 1


In summary, caution should be exercised when equating organisational level/grade with work complexity. Some factors used as grading criteria may not correlate significantly with the complexity of work required in the organisation, and there may also be other organisational/grading factors taken into account that would create exceptions.

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