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Referent Power

Referent Power Definition

Referent power is garnered through admiration. It is one of the five types of power that social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven described in 1959, and it is not a type of power that is bestowed, but is a personal power that is earned.  It is a type of social power that is obtained in a person over time because they have admirable qualities, attitudes, skills, and a solid reputation.

A person with referent power has influence because they are admired, respected, or even idolized. People support and follow them because they are seen as a source of inspiration.  Others want to identify with them, emulate them, or associate themselves with them. Referent power can be seen as a positive power source, as it can be used to inspire and motivate others to achieve common goals.

Referent power is unique in many ways, as it is not formal power (i.e., based on formal authority or control).  What it is based on is the individual and collective perceptions and opinions of others. It differs from other forms of power, such as expert power (based on knowledge and expertise) or reward power (based on the ability to give rewards or punishments) because it can be a source of influence in the absence of formal authority.  Moreover, referent power can become a powerful tool for an organization looking to create positive change. Individuals with referent power rise to that place of prominence because people see a “goodness” or “expertise” in them that often inspires and motivates others to strive for excellence and to make a positive impact, too.  [You can see all the various types of power here].

Test Which Type Of Power You Use

Influence and Examples

Referent power can be used to influence people in a variety of ways. The first way is through trust. A person who is seen as highly trustworthy has their word taken at face value.  If they ask people to join in whatever they are working on, they gain cooperation because people believe that their motives are true and good. Additionally, credibility is a trait that lends referent power, and branches off from trust.  Someone with referent power may be able to get others to support a cause they believe in, for example, simply because they have credibility. Referent power is influential on people’s opinions or decision making processes, as people are more likely to take in the opinions of someone they admire and respect.

Additionally, referent power in an organizational setting can pull a group together by creating a sense of belonging and community, as people are drawn to individuals that they can share values and motives with.  [You can see what type of organizational culture your company has with the test What’s Your Organizational Culture?] When admired leaders emerge, subordinates tend to want to help them and emulate them.  In the end, they want to be a part of what that leader is creating.

Referent power emerges almost anywhere, and can emerge at any time.  It can be found in many different settings and contexts, such as in politics, business, with employees, schools, sports, and entertainment. In these contexts, people with referent power can play a key role in shaping opinions, creating movements, and driving change.

It can be, however, a double-edged sword, as people with this type of power may also be seen as a threat to those in formal positions of authority. This can result in backlash and efforts to undermine their influence. Additionally, referent power is impermanent, as people's admiration and respect for an individual can change over time based on the situation, as well as their actions or decisions.

Referent Power Example

There are noteworthy examples of individuals who have used referent power to influence and inspire others. For instance,  Mahatma Gandhi was a political and spiritual leader in India who used his referent power to inspire non-violent resistance against British rule.  Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and civil rights leader, was a referent leader and used his referent power to lead the American civil rights movement and fight for racial equality.  Another civil rights leader, Nelson Mandela, was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who used his referent power to bring about a peaceful end to apartheid laid the foundation for a democratic South Africa.  A media executive, philanthropist, and television host named Oprah Winfrey, continues to inspire and empower millions of people around the world through her media empire and philanthropic efforts. And, Steve Jobs, a visionary entrepreneur and co-founder of Apple Inc., was a  referent power leader who inspired and drove innovation in the tech industry. Having your workforce participate in an employee engagement survey can be a quick way to assess if employees are reacting well to your leaders’ type of power.

Strengths of Referent Power

The biggest strength of referent power is in its natural ability to inspire and motivate others. A leader with referent power can inspire and motivate others to strive for excellence and make a positive impact through emulation.  Second, referent power can build trust and credibility with others, making it easier to influence their opinions and decisions.  Referent power can also create a sense of belonging and community, as people are drawn to individuals they admire and want to be a part of the same group.  Another advantage of referent power can be that it is effective with a wide range of audiences, regardless of their background, culture, or beliefs.  An admired person is an admired person. 

Finally, referent power is not dependent on formal authority or control.  An individual with this type of power is a valuable asset for organizations when the person in power is aligned with the goals and achievements that need to be accomplished. You can assess if your leadership style is conducive to using referent power with the test What’s Your Leadership Style?

Weaknesses of Referent Power

Referent power, like any other type of power, has its weaknesses and limitations. Most significantly, those with referent power are seen as a role model and are often held in high regard. Any scandals or negative actions that they may become involved in, even tangentially, can quickly deflate their referent power as well as harm their reputation overall.

Also, referent power is dependent on the perception and opinions of others. Maintaining perceptions and opinions across time and tasks is difficult.  When perceptions change, the level of referent power may also change. Referent power may not be effective with all audiences, especially with those who do not respect or admire the person with referent power (or if interpersonal relationships are frayed).  Because referent power is informal and based on opinion, it can be difficult to measure and quantify, making it challenging to determine its impact or effectiveness.  In conclusion, referent power is a valuable tool for influence, but it is not without constraints.

Building Referent Power

Increasing referent power, is no easy task, as it depends very much on the perception and opinions of others. However, there are several strategies that can move individuals into increasing any referent power that they may have. The first order of business is to work on being authentic.  Referent power is built on admiration and respect, so it is important to be genuine and authentic in one's actions and behavior. Second, highlight your competence and expertise.  And, if you are gaining competence and expertise, let people in on your journey. Showcasing one's skills and knowledge can increase respect and admiration, which can in turn increase referent power. Importantly, one with referent power must lead by example.

Referent power is closely associated with moral leadership and doing what is right, even in the face of adversity. Acting ethically and being an example can inspire others to follow and increase power. Building strong relationships and communicating effectively with others are closely intertwined.  Effective communication and interpersonal skills are key to building trust and credibility, which in turn, bonds relationships.  These are essential components of referent power.  [You can test your communication style here].

Finally, embrace diversity and inclusiveness.  These qualities can increase respect and admiration from a wide range of audiences. The more open a person is to all people and ideas, the stronger the trust that is built.  In conclusion, increasing referent power requires building positive personality traits and portraying authentic behaviors that can be embraced and emulated by others.

Referent Power Is Not Just Charisma

With referent power, it helps to have charisma, but it is not a requirement. And, those with charisma do not necessarily have strong referent power.  A referent power base originates from admiration and respect for an individual's personal qualities and attributes, such as integrity, authenticity, and character. Charismatic power, on the other hand, originates from an individual's personal charm and emotional appeal.  Referent power is based on personal reputation and relationships with others while charismatic power is based on an individual's ability to inspire and motivate others through emotional and personal appeal.  Referent power can take a while to build up, and the impact can possibly last over a period of time, as it is based on the admiration and respect of others.

Charismatic power may have a more immediate impact, a more in-the-moment impact, due to emotional appeal, which may fade over time.  Another difference is that referent power is often associated with quiet leadership, as referent leaders are often admired for simply exuding personal qualities and moral character. Charismatic power, alternatively, is often associated with a more flamboyant style of leadership, as individuals with charismatic power are often seen as dynamic and unrestrained.  Individuals with both referent power and charismatic power can be highly influential, as they have the ability to inspire and motivate others through both personal attributes and emotional appeal, but, they diverge from there.

It's important to note that individuals with referent power and charismatic power can be highly effective leaders, but in different ways.  For example, an individual with referent power may be able to use their reputation and personal qualities to build strong, trustworthy, and loyal relationships with their followers, which can result in long commitment. A charismatic leader (someone with charismatic power) may be able to use their emotional appeal and charm to rally others around a shared vision or goal, resulting in high levels of motivation and engagement. 

So, referent power and charismatic power can both be valuable assets in leadership, and the most effective leaders often possess a combination of the two. However, it is important to note that an excess of either referent power or charismatic power can lead to negative consequences. For example, individuals with too much referent power may become arrogant or aloof, while individuals with too much charismatic power may become manipulative or overbearing.  Humility can be a balancing force for both.  And, for either type of power, in order for it to be maintained, a leader must continue to influence in a responsible and ethical manner.

 

 

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