In my work with a client in recent weeks, it occurred to me that he was seeking to effect change at several different levels in his professional life, and it was important for us to be clear about which level he was addressing in any given moment. Thinking further along these lines, I realized that we're always working on multiple levels--work life as a layer cake--and a clearer understanding of what each level encompasses (and what we can and can't do there) would provide a useful conceptual framework.
Working my way down from the top of the graphic above...
At the Structural level are the big-picture circumstances of our working lives: Our career path, our professional identity, our organizational affiliations and all the other ways in which we might answer the question, "So what do you do?"
At the Contextual level are those factors related to our current situation: Our specific role and (in some cases) job description, our explicit and implicit responsibilities, and the obligations and expectations we bring to our reporting relationships (up, down and sideways).
At the Interpersonal level are the issues that arise within every unique configuration of individuals: Our relationships with our peers, superiors and subordinates, not only one-on-one, but also in any permanent or temporary groups.
Finally, at the Internal level is our intrapersonal response to all of the above: The mental models, attitudes and beliefs we use to interpret and make sense of our professional lives (and selves); the emotions that accompany and underlie these conceptions; and any self-coaching practices we employ to influence these responses.
So how can we put this framework to, uh, work?
One guideline is "start low." As we move up from Internal to Structural, the scope of change that can be effected gets "bigger" (in a sense) but the degree of immediate personal control that we can exert gets correspondingly "smaller." So when change is desired it may be useful to start at the Internal level to see what we can accomplish on our own. Perhaps nothing needs to change other than our own mental models, beliefs or emotional state.
Starting low also insures that we don't "skip a step" and drag unresolved issues along with us in the process. For example, we may need to change careers to find fulfillment--a big Structural shift--but if the root of our unhappiness actually lies at the Internal or Interpersonal layer, we'll eventually encounter the very same problems again in our new role.
Finally, it's useful to remember that we're always evolving on all levels at once, and changes on any one level will inevitably affect the others. Change in ourselves will affect our interpersonal relationships. Changes in our relationships will affect how we fulfill our roles and responsibilities. And changes in those contextual factors will affect our fit with our organizations and our professional identities.
One last note: The boundaries between these levels are extremely amorphous and are by no means clear or discrete. I'm not suggesting that desired changes fall neatly into one level and not another. But hopefully this model allows us to more accurately diagnose where change would be most useful and to target our efforts accordingly.