Understanding Organizational Power: Title, Expertise, Relationships

Students focus too much on expertise, professionals focus too much on title, but relationships is where the real power lies

There are 3 kinds of power in an organization and most people focus on the wrong ones.

Jacob Kaplan-Moss has a great article about The Three Kinds of Organizational Power: role power, expertise power, and power through relationships. Most people focus on the less important ones. Understanding what these powers are and how to use them is key to becoming effective at your work.

This article is a summary of Jacob’s key points followed by my thoughts on the importance of the power that people ignore: relationships aka networking. I do realize this is not ideal, but this is how it is right now.

Definitions

Role Power: This power is a result of your formal role in the organization: the job title. This is what people primarily think of when they hear the word power. Because clearly, the higher up you are in the organization, the more power you have to tell subordinates what to do and they have to obey.

But Jacob points out that this is not how it actually works in real life:

I would say that role power only accounts for maybe 20% of a person’s overall power organizationally. Yes, a boss can, well, boss people around…but the effectiveness of this is quite limited. Orders lead to compliance, but not alignment; a manager who orders people around will get only the minimum out of their staff. They’ll be causing burnout and resentment, which will sooner or later cause that manager to fail.

Expertise Power: “Expertise power is the power you have at an organization by being a clear expert in some technology, system, or process.” Some people, especially senior technical people, have some power because of their expertise and knowledge. Jacob doesn’t have much to say about expertise. But he points out that expertise is rarely very useful as a power unless it is combined with the other two powers, especially the relationships. An expert who is bad at maintaining relationships will rarely be able to keep a powerful role for too long; the organization will constantly be looking for workarounds or replacements.

I think the situation in the Indian software industry is a bit different, and I’ll talk about it later in this article.

Relationship Power: In Jacob’s words:

Relationship power is simply the ability to get work done through your relationships with others. It’s all the work that gets done because people and teams know and understand each other, work together effectively, and are happy to help each other out because they want others to be successful, too.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article I hope it’s this: spend more time building relationships at work. If you build strong relationships with your colleagues, your work will be smoother, happier, and more effective.

So the summary is this: Over the course of a long career, expertise is not very useful without the appropriate roles and relationships. And the role probably accounts for just about 20% of your power. Most of the power—70-80% of it—comes from relationship power.

Most people don’t realize this.

This is my simplified summary of Jacob’s article. I would urge you to read the whole article because it has more details and gets into some subtleties.

In the rest of this article, I’ll talk about how the situation is different in India and how best to use these insights.

Role, Expertise, and Relationships in the Indian Software Industry

At the beginning of their careers, juniors start out way too focused on expertise. This is the right thing to do: when you’re a junior employee you can only “get work done” by doing the work yourself. And that’s not possible without the basic expertise needed (e.g. Java programming) to just get and keep your job.

To increase your power you have to be able to influence increasing numbers of people. Unfortunately, in the Indian software industry, this usually means becoming a people manager of larger and larger teams. And very soon the manager loses touch with technology and becomes what Anand Deshpande, founder and chairman of Persistent Systems calls experts at managing emails and Excel spreadsheets1. Most of their contribution comes from their role.

For a long time now, the Indian software industry has been growing so much so fast that everybody was being promoted. As a result, people got role power—middle management, FTW!—without having to really build their skills in the other two areas. Not only are the relationship skills missing, as Jacob laments, but specifically in India, even the technology skills are at a premium because so few senior people have them.

Poor Networking Limits Your Mid-Career Options

As growth inevitably slows down, and as AI starts eating middle-management, the problems will begin.

This problem becomes acute when attempting a mid-career switch, especially after having spent a long time in a single company. I regularly interact with senior people in this situation, and I’ve noticed a small but growing fraction of them having trouble because of weak connections, especially outside their company. Further, many aren’t aware of important technology trends outside their focus area:

Did you know that it is far easier to get a job through your network than to get one based on your resume alone?

Did you know that the best way to be knowledgeable isn’t to become an expert in all fields yourself, but to build a network of experts whom you can ping for an opinion or advice?

Here is a long thread about why your relationships are far more important than your role. All of it has good insights, but the 6th tweet of the thread contains the key:

Networking and Privilege

I am aware that having to rely on networking so heavily is not an ideal situation. A lot of times, “network” is just a proxy for privilege: the old-boys network (which puts women at a disadvantage), the IIT-network (which disadvantages alumni of lesser colleges), the upper-caste network (which discriminates against lower castes), and any network discriminates against introverts who don’t want to network.

I wish the world did not work like this. I wish the world was a meritocracy. But it can never be: because the real achievements of a person can never be captured by a resume, and the value of a person can never be captured by a round of interviews. As a result, a lot of the real decisions happen via reputation and recommendations of people you trust—which are themselves based on reputation and recommendations of trusted sources—and you begin to see how this is a network.

There’s some comfort in knowing that many networks have lots of good people who use their network for the benefit of good people outside the network. For that too though, you need relationships with people from different backgrounds.

The Power of Weak Links

On the flip side, at most times, even acquaintances help. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone in the network. How does this work? One of the most important concepts in networking is the power of weak links:

You would be mistaken to assume that if you know someone only a little bit, that person will not be of much help when it matters. The reality is, fortunately, quite the opposite because of two reasons. First, a lot of people are quite happy to help good people even if the link to them is weak. And second, real help comes from networks outside your immediate network. The strong links in your network, your closest colleagues/friends, are most likely to be in the same networks as you. Therefore, they are less likely to be able to connect you to the other networks, which is where the real help will come from.

Summary

Networking and building relationships is one of the most important things you can do for your career, and of course life too. I say this as someone who was terrible at this until the age of 35. It makes sense to put effort into learning how to do this well. But networking for the sake of networking doesn’t work. In a follow-up post, I will give specific advice on improving your networking game, even if you are an introvert—like I was/am. I can’t give advice to women, underprivileged owing to caste/race or people with a weak academic background. I am working on getting successful people from backgrounds other than mine to do guest posts.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below:

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Thanks to Makarand Sahasrabuddhe, Pratap Tambay, and Meeta Kabra for reading drafts of this article. Thanks to Meeta Kabra for editing.

1

I’ve heard Anand say this personally, but I don’t have any link to an online source where he says this. If anyone can find one please let me know. I cite this often.