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Leadership Development

5 Types of Power at Work – Which is Best?

By February 13, 2019 No Comments

Power is the ability to get others to do what you want. It’s nice to have power at work. It means you are an influential person!

power, leadership skills, leadership styles, executive coaching

Research suggests that you can acquire power from 5 different sources. Let’s review:

  1. Reward power comes from your ability to provide something that your subordinates want. You are essentially compensating others for their compliance. This can include a paycheck, bonus, high performance appraisal ratings, promotions, and even simple compliments. Because you are able to give special benefits or rewards to them, it’s in their best interest to keep you happy or to exchange favors with you. If others expect that you’ll reward them for doing what you want, there’s a high probability that they’ll do it.
  2. Coercive power comes from your ability to punish others for noncompliance – even if the threat of doing so is not made explicit. Punishment in the workplace can include a demotion, reprimand, removal of some privilege, an undesirable assignment, or denial of a transfer recommendation. Because you are able to make life difficult for others, they want to avoid making you angry. This source of power can be easily abused. While your position may allow you to do this, it doesn’t mean that you have the justification to do so. What’s more, it can cause dissatisfaction or resentment among the people it’s applied to. You may sometimes need to punish people as a last resort, but if you use coercive power too much people will leave (and you risk being accused of bullying them).
  3. Legitimate power comes from your formal authority; simply because you have the title of manager, supervisor, or director. With legitimate power, you have the formal right to make demands, and to expect others to be compliant and obedient. Subordinates have an obligation to comply with your reasonable requests.
  4. Referent power comes from admiration and respect that you have earned. Perhaps you initially used your charm, attractiveness, wit, or charisma to cultivate this type of power. Then you become a role model that others want to emulate. Individuals who are liked and respected by others can usually get those people to do what they want. This is why celebrities and sports heroes are paid millions to endorse certain products. In a workplace, a person with referent power often makes everyone feel good, so he/she tends to have a lot of influence.
  5. Expert power comes from your special knowledge, skills, or expertise. You develop this power over time by establishing credibility, knowing exactly what is needed to perform the task, or being able to fix things. Once you have acquired this power through experience and knowledge, others will respect you and defer to your judgment on critical issues. When you suggest solutions, use good judgment, and generally outperform others, people will consider you a subject matter expert and look to you for leadership in that area.

By understanding these different forms of power, you can learn to use the positive ones with greater effectiveness, while avoiding the negative power sources that some managers instinctively rely on.

These 5 types of power can all operate together; it’s likely you have access to more than one type of power at a time. They can also fluctuate over time. As situations change, your level or types power may also change. For example, a cult leader may start out with referent power and then change to coercive over time.

Organizational versus Personal Power

Legitimate, reward, and coercive powers are called the “organizational” powers because they are given automatically as part of an elected, selected, or appointed position. A president, prime minister or king has legitimate power. So does a CEO, a religious minister, or a fire chief. These powers shift to whoever holds that position. If you lose your title or position, your legitimate power can instantly disappear, because people were influenced by the position you held rather than by you personally.

Referent and expert powers are considered “personal” because they must be earned through education or interaction over time. If you transfer to another department or company, those powers typically move with you as your reputation precedes you. People enjoy working with leaders that have the personal powers. These forms of power lead to higher job satisfaction and less turnover in the workplace.

Which One is Best?

The most powerful of all the powers is referent. This is the most desirable one to earn. The catch? You will lose it if you over-use coercive power. Focusing too much of your attention on your team’s mistakes or creating a hostile/threatening work environment reduces your respect. You may get temporary compliance because of coercive power, but you damage relationships and people don’t like working with or for you. So over-using this one may cost you the most important one in the long run.

Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven studied these 5 types of power more than half a century ago. Despite its age, their work can still help us to understand why some leaders are more influential and – if you are a leader – how you can develop new types of power to get the best from your people.

Dr. Stefani Yorges

Dr. Stefani Yorges

I am a psychologist and professional leadership coach. I partner with people who want to rise to their full potential so they can have an increasingly greater impact on others.

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