Tapestry of Faith: Harvest the Power, 2nd Edition: A Lay Leadership Development Program for Adults
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Handout 2: Types of Power

For Workshop 1, Leadership Journey, Activity 5, Power

Adapted by Beth Zemsky, MA, ED, LICSW, from “The Bases of Social Power” by J. R. P. French and B. Raven (1959), in D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in Social Power (pp. 150–167). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan. Retrieved from Types of Power Orgs (PDF)

Referent Power

The desire for a feeling of oneness and acceptance in a valued relationship. Referent power is based on identification with, attraction to, or respect for the leader. Group members gain a sense of intrinsic personal satisfaction from identification with a referent leader. This kind of power relationship is dependent on the inclination to work harder for someone who is liked or admired. To gain and maintain a leader’s approval and acceptance, a follower is likely to do what the leader asks, develop a similar attitude, and even imitate the leader’s behavior. Leaders who are charming and trustworthy tend to possess and use referent power more often than those who are less personable. By showing genuine concern and demonstrating a general level of respect for others, referent power tends to increase early in the relationship between leader and follower. However, if the charisma of a leader is never connected to genuine integrity and strength of character, referent power is easily lost.

In organizations, referent power is most easily seen in the charismatic leader who excels in making others feel comfortable in their presence. Staff typically express their excitement about work in terms of their attraction to their leader’s personal characteristics and charisma. They commit to their work because of the leader’s likability, and they base their self-esteem and sense of accomplishment on their leader’s approval. Charismatic leaders who lack the integrity and depth of character to match their charm and charisma often leave organizations within a few years, and frequently leave a path of destruction in their wake. Their insecurities eventually manifest themselves in the form of erratic decision-making and defensiveness that can alienate the leader from their staff and their colleagues. If left unchecked or used as an exclusive source of influence, referent power’s benefits quickly decrease and destructively give way to its liabilities.

Expert Power

The extent of specialized skills or knowledge that followers attribute to a leader. Expert power derives from group members’ assumptions that the leader possesses superior skills, knowledge, and abilities. This expertise enables leaders to perform tasks and provides them with a better understanding of the world around them. However, expertise is only a source of power if others are dependent on the leader for the skill, knowledge, or ability the leader possesses. The more important a problem is to the follower, and the more the leader is perceived to be an expert in that area, the greater power the expert leader will have. Like referent power, expert power may come more easily in the short term, yet prove troublesome in the long term. Initially, the leader’s perceived expertise is typically strong, but a leader must balance expertise with wisdom and not exaggerate the extent of their expertise. As time progresses, followers learn more, and a leader’s expertise may be questioned and challenged; the power of expertise can diminish.

While expertise can be maintained through continual formal study and training, research suggests that a convincing way to demonstrate expertise is to solve problems important to followers and to provide sound advice on a consistent basis. When a leader has a lot of expert power and is trusted by followers as a reliable resource for wisdom and information, the leader can have tremendous influence over the long term.

Leaders are generally granted expert power in fields in which they have reputable experience and education. While the educational field, and the ability to understand and effectively communicate educational content, is an obvious example, the ability to communicate experience and wisdom about interpersonal problem-solving and life skills is also an area in which a leader may influence others.

Positional Power

The authority granted to someone stemming from a position in a group or organization. This type of power stems from an authority’s right to require and demand compliance. It is dependent on the official position held by the person exercising it.

Positional power may be derived from prevailing cultural values that assign power to some individuals (e.g., respect for one’s elders), from social structures that grant position power to some people (e.g., British royalty), or through one’s position in a hierarchy. Positional power may also be granted to someone consciously or unconsciously based on their social identity (e.g White, male, heterosexual, Christian, etc.). The amount of positional power a leader might have is likely related to the leader’s scope of authority. For example, managers typically have more authority than staff members, and a staff member typically has more authority than community members. Yet, it is not uncommon for a leader to make requests of someone who may technically fall outside their scope of authority and for that person to willingly comply.

A leader’s scope of authority is usually defined in the work environment by documents such as organizational charts, contracts, and job descriptions. However, ambiguity about the scope of a leader’s authority is common. If managers, staff members, and the community define the boundaries of positional power differently, then conflict is likely to develop. This conflict can interfere with the accomplishments of an organizational or educational purpose.

Positional power can easily lead to tension because of its close association with the position and not the person; the position itself may grant power to uncooperative and difficult people. However, over time, positional power becomes less useful if it is not practiced in a manner consistent with agreed-on norms of behavior and in an environment where communication is clear. While the position of leader holds respect and authority, the personal nature of some positions do not allow a leader to wield a great deal of power. Leaders generally have the authority to ask much of their staff, but they must do so in a way perceived to be fair and respectful, which often involves the use of referent and expert power. So, while the position itself grants the leader some positional power, exercising positional power exclusively is not likely to be useful over time.

Reward Power

The ability to reward. Reward power is based on the belief that a leader controls important resources and rewards that the follower wants. Reward power depends not only on a leader’s actual control over rewards, but also on the follower’s perceived value of those rewards. Reward power has been shown to be most effective when followers see a direct connection between performance and reward. Leaders most commonly use reward power with a promise to give staff something in exchange for carrying out an assigned task, such as a grade, a special privilege, or a form of recognition. Precisely how this is carried out can significantly affect the outcome. When leaders offer the right rewards—that is, rewards that are valued, fair, and in line with what they can deliver—reward power is effective. Being true to one’s word and using rewards in a non-manipulative fashion are also essential.

The overuse of reward power by a leader may drive followers to view the relationship in purely transactional terms (e.g., “I will do X because you will give me Y”). Rather than use rewards in an impersonal way, leaders can most effectively use rewards to recognize accomplishments within the context of referent power.

Coercive Power

The ability to punish if expectations are not met. Coercive power is the capacity to dispense punishments to those who do not comply with requests or demands. People exercise coercive power through reliance on physical strength, verbal facility, or the ability to grant or withhold emotional support or tangible resources from others. Coercive power provides a leader with the means to physically harm, bully, humiliate, or deny love, affection, or resources to others. Coercive power in the workplace includes the ability (implied or real) to fire, demote, or transfer others to undesirable positions.

Coercive power can be useful for deterring detrimental behavior and at times when compliance is absolutely necessary, such as in a crisis situation. However, in most situations, coercive power should be used predominantly as a last resort, as it has significant negative side effects. Coercive methods have been linked to a number of dysfunctional group processes, including dislike, anger, resentment, rejection, conflict, and decreases in motivation, and self-esteem.