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Changes in power dynamics can quickly alter the way a company works.
Promotions, hierarchy shuffles and evolving responsibilities mean that the structures of command and control dictate who leads and who follows. But did you know that ‘softer’, more personal power can have just as much of an influence as your job title?
Expert power is a skill you can use to leave your mark on your organization, even if you’re not in an official capacity to call the shots.
It involves making use of your unique set of skills, talents, and qualifications. But unlike formal power, expert power isn’t limited to those in charge of a business - it’s for everyone.
Expert power needs to be earned. Increasing it means becoming more confident in your abilities and leading with the determination you need to succeed. Leaders with high expert power are much more likely to inspire and lead others; employees with little formal power can also use expert power to rise through the ranks more quickly.
Here’s how it works.
Expert power is the perception that someone has more knowledge or skills than other people in the same group. It’s not necessarily true - but it’s what people think; it’s the image that they’ve cultivated about their competence and abilities.
It’s an informal type of power - the opposite to the formal power that lies in job titles and official positions. It’s based on influence rather than specific qualifications.
The expert power definition can be traced back to French and Raven’s 1959 paper “The Bases of Social Power.” Note how the strength of expert power is determined by “the person upon whom power is exerted.”
This effectively means that being knowledgeable isn’t enough to exert expert power. Convincing others of your elevated skills and knowledge is where the real challenge lies.
Expert and referent power are often mentioned in the same context, but they’re significantly different.
If expert power comes from knowledge, referent power has its roots in trust and respect.
Think of a boss (Emily) who treats all team members with the respect they deserve, doing everything she can to foster a sense of community within the company.
Emily runs a small yet successful digital marketing agency. One day, she introduces new software that she claims will improve workflow by streamlining procedures. As expected, everyone trusts her judgment and is willing to adapt. This demonstrates Emily’s referent power over her team members.
It’s easy to see how powerful expert and referent power can be when combined. Here’s an example of expert power working hand in hand with referent power:
Aside from earning her team’s trust, imagine that Emily also has an MA in software engineering. She’s spent the last ten years designing, developing, testing, and maintaining computer software for some of the biggest names out there.
Emily is liked, appreciated, and respected, but she also knows a lot about software. So it comes as no surprise as her colleagues quickly accept her suggestion with little to no resistance.
Not many leaders want to be autocratic bosses, leading only through fear and the power of their position. They can instead combine personal powers (such as expert power) with their formal powers to gain their employees’ trust and respect. As a leader, ideally, you want team members to see you as an inspiring figure, pivotal to the business’s longevity and success due to your expertise and wisdom.
In his book Leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl outlines the importance of expert power as an asset. It can increase a leader’s influence and reputation as more people naturally turn to them for answers and directions. Yukl also claims that it’s much more effective than other bases of formal social power, such as coercive and reward power (the fear of punishment and the ability to issue rewards, respectively).
Now, building that expertise won’t be easy. It takes thousands of hours of vigorous learning to become an expert in any field. Even then, you need to keep learning and updating your knowledge as new developments and discoveries inevitably shake things up.
And, of course, as we’ve already discussed, there’s also the issue of acknowledgment. You might claim to be an expert, but you also need to convince others of your expertise.
So, if you’re a leader wanting to increase the amount of expert power you wield in your organization, make sure you:
Unlike formal power, expert power isn’t limited to bosses and leaders.
With the right set of tools, anyone can exert expert power to a certain degree. Convincing colleagues (and especially your superiors) of your valuable knowledge in a specific niche can help you take your career to the next level.
We’ve already mentioned a few tips that can help leaders increase their expert power base. Just as if you were a leader, you need to:
From leaders to interns, anyone can gain and exert expert power, as long as they have a superior level of knowledge on a specific niche—that others in the same company don’t know much about. The more specific the project, the higher the need for specialized knowledge.
You don’t need to know everything about a certain field for others to see you as having expertise - you just need to know more than they do.
Here’s another example of expert power, but in a non-leadership role:
Anthony’s a 21-year-old fashion designer who’s just joined a traditional modeling agency as an apprentice. Although relatively inexperienced, Anthony has spent most of his teenage years learning about fashion through social media: He follows several models and fashion designers on Instagram and spends endless hours browsing new ideas and designs on Pinterest and Etsy.
Just six months into his first job, the head of design approaches him and asks for his help with the agency’s very first Instagram campaign. Anthony can finally put all of his social media fashion experience into good use. If all goes well, he might even get to lead similar online campaigns in the future—success!
For the best results though, expert power needs to be shared tactfully. Whether it’s formal or personal, power can still lead to imperious behavior. While sharing his expertise, Anthony, for example, also needs to make sure:
These, of course, aren’t just true in Anthony’s case. Anyone who’s in the lucky position to exert expert power should take it as an opportunity to grow both as a leader and a person.
Businesses and leaders can take advantage of expert power to complete projects faster and more efficiently. It can also be used to build relationships internally and externally, as well as demonstrate expertise to potential customers and the general public.
Adept use of expert power comes with positive effects for everyone involved. It’s also a great way of discovering hidden talent.
Leaders can use expert power to reinforce their formal power and strengthen team bonds, too. Respected bosses don’t just lead through the power of their formal position. They know how to communicate with team members and delegate tasks, and they have enough knowledge in their field to contribute successfully to many relevant projects. Here’s what all great leaders have in common.
Employees can use their advanced knowledge to boost performance and stand out. They can thus gain the trust of their colleagues and superiors, leading to a potential promotion in the future.
Many of these principles can have applications in daily life too. Emily, for example, can utilize her software skills to help her mother find the perfect nutrition app. On the other hand, Anthony can take advantage of his digital fashion knowledge to help his friend pick the best outfit for an important Instagram photoshoot.
When utilized correctly, expert power can motivate teams and help leaders shine. That being said, there are some pitfalls associated with this particular type of personal power:
Do you ever feel like you know a lot about a topic that’s brought up during a meeting, but you decide to keep your mouth shut anyway? How did you feel when your colleague—who might actually know less than you do—was chosen to lead that project instead? Now, imagine how different things would be if you’d shared your ideas with the team a bit sooner.
Give expert power a chance. If, for example, you’re that apprentice fashion designer who knows everything there is to know about social media, make sure to mention it to your boss and manager. Who knows? They might pick you to lead the agency’s first Instagram campaign. The opportunities it opens up for you can be tremendous.
If you already find yourself in the driver’s seat, reinforce your position and earn your team’s respect by sharing your skills and knowledge. Promote your expertise, offer solutions, but most importantly - never stop learning.