3 min read

Warm Take: Power

On the invisible org chart -- and I promise, you have one.
Black and white image, many electrical towers in the foreground, forest and mountains in the background
Photo by Jan Huber / Unsplash

“We’re talking about distributing our first org chart, and there’s pushback from people who think it’s too corporate.”

Someone raised this at my talk for group of managers in early stage NYC startups, a few years back. One of their peers from another company had been through it. “You already have an org chart,” they said, “Even when it’s not on paper.”


Even organizations with well-articulated roles and responsibilities have invisible org charts. Who get resources, who gets promoted…who gets backed by leadership in a conflict.

There’s one thing I likely didn’t say that day, at least not succinctly:  the invisible org chart is about power.

Last week, I talked with someone in my circle about a people problem at work. The next day, I realized that we had spent an hour on zoom without explicitly discussing power. I talked about it; I didn't name it.

Management competence is an admixture of method, situational awareness, and relationship traction, or so I began last month's issue on competence. Indeed, there’s no universal, skills-based, ladder for management competence. Behavior that made you successful in one organization may be your downfall in another.

I used “admixture” with some care. It’s kind of a weird, evocative word. I meant that there's a specific mixture of method, situational awareness, and relationship traction that contribute to competence. It's unique to an organization.

I’ve learned more about the word admixture — which maybe I remembered from college chemistry? It describe a mixture of ingredients, meant to be added to a substrate.

In the workplace, that substrate is composed of a few things. One of them is power.

I’ve written about positional power, yikes in 2012.  Today, I want to point to the power that inheres in your invisible org chart.  The group actually called “Friends of Brad” by insiders. The fortunate few the CEO has anointed with an Instagram follow. The one who can get approval for a special working arrangement.

These are ingredients of some pretty clickable media product about the latest, most dysfunctional organizations. Maybe we read these articles because they describe the outlines of the invisible org chart, where power is accumulated, and exercised. The kind of power that’s often unspoken.

In my experience, this power rarely emerges as the design of an evil genius CEO who cut their teeth on The Art of War.  

It can arise from management inattention. Or when a less-experienced leader doesn’t yet know what they don’t know about how groups of people operate.

When you lead a team, you’ve got to listen for what you can’t see. In a larger organization, your peers may have valuable insight on your team’s performance. And don't make the mistake of dismissing grumbling and gossip; both carry information.

When everything’s going fine, everyone’s happy, and meeting their goals, maybe there’s nothing to see. If things aren't going smoothly, there’s a reason you don’t know. What might that be?

And, I promise, you have an invisible org chart. What does it look like?

I pride myself on being a truth-teller. Today's Warm Take was inspired because I couldn't believe that in my recent conversation, I failed to utter the word "power."

This morning, I thought about some of my favorite management resources, and scanned through things I've written, looking for explicit references to power. But if I keep digging, today's note will never go out. I'll plan to do a deep dive on Power down the road a bit.

I'd love to hear from you about power! Particularly if you can recommend something about power that we should read, listen to, or watch.

Welcome to new readers. Thanks for reading On Management, and many thanks to those who support the newsletter, either financially, or by sharing it with your coworkers and friends.

As always, I write these while drinking my Sunday morning coffee, and send them to you lightly edited. When I find the inevitable typos later on, I'll fix them on the Internet.

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free.

Anne Libby

P.S. I've decided to sunset the option to pay monthly to support On Management. This won't affect current paying supporters, or people who sign up in the next few weeks. I'll have more details in a coming issue.

Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada, waving someone off, "That's all."
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