Types Of Power Quiz: Do You Use Referent Power, Reward Power, Coercive Power, Legitimate Power, Expert Power or Information Power?
Ambitious employees and leaders often ask “what are the various types of power?" and "how do I get more power?" Beginning in the late 1950s, psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven famously identified 6 types of power: Referent Power, Reward Power, Coercive Power, Legitimate Power, Expert Power, and Information Power.
Before we explore each type (and their pros and cons), take the quiz to see which types of power you tend to use most frequently!
It's time to understand all types of power. We’re going to dig deep into all the types of power, but feel free to jump to any section that interests you:
Reward power is based on employees’ perceptions that a leader or manager has the ability to offer them benefits based on meeting the leader’s directives. In its simplest form, it could sound like ‘If you do this by Friday, then you can take Monday off.’
A pat on the back, praise, employee recognition programs, bonuses, and even high ratings on a performance review, are all various forms of reward power.
There are typically two forms of reward power: personal and impersonal. Personal reward power comes when a leader conveys their approval, or lets employees know that they like or value them. Impersonal reward power, by contrast, is derived from a leader being able to give promotions, bonuses, formal recognition, better assignments, etc.
On the plus side, reward power is pretty common in modern organizations. Most bonus and compensation systems, for example, are rooted in reward power. Thus it’s typically quick to start using reward power and the results can be nearly instantaneous. It’s also seen as a gentler form of power than, say, coercive power.
On the downside, however, once the rewards disappear, so too may the results. If I offer praise every time an employee does something great, their performance may slip if I start slacking on praising their work. And after a time, the impact of my personal rewards (e.g. praise or recognition) may fade. So too might the impact or availability of impersonal rewards, like bonuses or promotions.
Also, reward power typically requires a certain status in the organizational hierarchy. So it’s not a power that is readily available to frontline employees.
Coercive power is based on employees’ perceptions that a leader or manager has the ability to punish them if they fail to conform to his or her demands. In its simplest form, it could be ‘If you don’t do this thing by Friday you will be fired or written up.’
Almost by definition, coercive power entails a least some fear on the part of the employee. For that reason, coercive power is categorized as a “harsh” form of power.
In the workplace, examples of coercive power can include loss of privileges, demotion, loss of bonus, suspension, and even termination. There are two types of coercive power: direct and indirect coercion. Direct coercion is an outright threat by a leader to elicit a specific behavior. Indirect coercion is where the threat is perceived by the employee, regardless of whether it is real or not. For example, an employee might work extended hours for fear of losing his or her job, or may start taking on extra tasks in order to avoid demotion.
On the plus side, coercive power works in situations when, for example, an employee is actually insubordinate. Or when there’s a culture of harassment and discrimination, a coercive leader might be optimal to bring employees back in line to following the rules and laws. Coercive power is sometimes the only method that works when gross violations of employee conduct have been ignored and become accepted. And coercive power can be effective in changing the behavior of an employee who puts themselves or others at risk.
On the downside, however, because coercive power is the harshest form of power, it has the potential to significantly damage morale. And when overused, coercive power can be seen as bullying, threatening, and even abusive.
Legitimate power, also known as titular or formal power, is power that comes from having a title. It generally comes from a place in a hierarchy, so I have more power as a VP than I did as a director. I have more power as a director than I did as a manager, and so forth.
Legitimate power is a formal type of power that is built on an obvious hierarchy, as well as on rules. Legitimate power can rely on perception of level of power in addition to prescribed work titles and ranks. This type of powers tells nothing about whether a person is a good or poor leader, it only says that he or she is of a formal elevated rank in the company.
On the plus side, legitimate power allows leaders to move quickly and implement change without a lengthy process of persuasion and influence. And legitimate power is extremely useful for ‘keeping the trains running on time’ and maintaining operational consistency.
And those with legitimate power are able to hold the organization and its employees accountable to ensure that they’re doing the right thing. For example, one study found that people with legitimate power could more easily and effectively object to ethically questionable actions within the organization.
On the downside, legitimate power can be overused. If a leader constantly has to say “do it because I’m the boss,” employees will get turned off pretty quickly.
Referent power comes from being really well-liked (and can sometimes imply lots of charisma). Leaders with referent power are deeply admired and respected because of who they are or who they have proven to be. They often have a strong ability to connect with other people in a way that seems effortless. People follow them or want to work for people with referent power because they identify with them.
We often see referent power at play with celebrity endorsements. When a celebrity who is highly admired endorses something, those people who admire the celebrity want to follow suit.
Referent power is a type of power bestowed upon a leader by his or her employees, rather than given by his or her position at the company. It is as much about social reputation as it is about skills and talents.
On the plus side, referent power influences employees through trust and admiration and a desire to emulate a good role model. Referent power can be attained through the displayed living of the values of your company, along with an attitude of openness, acceptance, and empathy for employees. And all of those features make referent power a softer and more enjoyable form of power. Unlike, say, coercive power, there are very low interpersonal risks to using referent power.
On the downside, referent power is earned through time and trust. It is not a fast-acting form of power and can take years to develop (especially if one is not naturally inclined to display referent power). And referent power is much harder to extend to your proxies, so you’re likely to be called on to personally handle situations over and over (because people like dealing with you better than others).
Expert power is when you can do things better than other people; when you have a particular area of expertise. This power might sound like: “I don’t know how to work XYZ software. Who’s our expert at that? Bob’s the expert, Sally’s the expert. Let’s go ask them because they know how to do it.”
Expert power is the perception that a certain person has an elevated level of knowledge or a specific skill set that others do not have. Expert power is a non-coercive leadership power. People follow an expert or follow the advice of an expert because they are respected for their capabilities. This perception of a high level of expertise leads to more influence within the expert’s place of work or expertise domain.
And expert power draws followers as people want to learn from the expert. Expert power is attained when one has a special skill or knowledge area, and has the ability to transfer to others their knowledge, skill, or information.
On the plus side, as organizations have become more technically complex, lower-level staff members with expert power now have top-level decision-making ability. Expert power can be more influential than rank in today’s high-tech workplaces.
Imagine, for example, that a newly-minted surgeon has learned certain techniques and technologies that a high-ranking and seasoned surgeon may not have. This makes the new surgeon superior in a surgery situation that requires the new technique, and thus, they have expert power in the operating room.
On the downside, expert power takes time to develop. Someone who lacks expertise will typically need additional training, academic programs, or concentrated practice.
And for expert power to work well, it can’t just be about having expertise; it also requires the ability and willingness to transfer and teach that expertise to others. Occasionally people with expert power can become rigid and dogmatic; they might hold onto one particular area of expertise and not grow beyond that area. Or they might be threatened by others who try to become experts in their territory.
Information power comes first from having insight or information that others don’t have access to. When you’ve read something that other people haven’t read, when you’re more in touch with what’s happening in your industry, you have information power. When people say, ‘let’s ask Mark, Mark knows what’s going on with this new regulation…’ you have information power.
Information power also comes from delivering persuasive and compelling reasons for why someone should do a particular thing.
If, for example, you want an employee to change how they do their job, you might persuasively explain why and how their job should be done differently, using logical and compelling arguments. The employee, in turn, understands and accepts the reasons and changes their behavior.
Instead of behaviorally modifying the employee’s behavior (like in reward or coercive power), information power actually creates a cognitive change in the employee, and thus greater acceptance of your ideas. Over time, the employee will likely continue with the changed behavior (and might not even remember that it was you who convinced them to make the change).
On the plus side, information power is long-lasting, because you’re creating fundamental change in those around you. It’s also a very gentle form of power, and there’s a very low risk of employees reacting poorly (unlike, say, coercive power).
Information power also does not require holding a particular title or rank, so it can be employed by anyone (even those without a formal management title). Anyone who’s willing to carefully rehearse their speeches, examine the logic and persuasiveness of their arguments, and gather the relevant background information, can develop and employ information power.
There is a potential downside, however. Information power typically takes time to develop, and the results are often more delayed than those with reward, coercive or legitimate power. And there are times when that extra time is either unavailable or even dangerous (if the office building is on fire, you need people outside immediately, and you likely won’t have time to give a persuasive presentation).