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What is referent power? (Plus, how to use it to earn respect)

three team members celebrating their coworkers referent power

We all follow orders at some point in our lives. And eventually, we’ll start giving them too. 

But why do we follow them? What’s the motivation behind our obedience and compliance? 

Did I obey because they were in a position of power? This is an example of ‘legitimate’ power, usually exerted by managers and bosses who hold high positions. 

Was it because I was scared of what these superiors could do if I didn’t comply? This kind of power is known as ‘coercive’ power, and those who yield it operate through fear.

But there’s a nicer, softer form of power you might not have identified so easily. 

If obedience isn’t motivated by a superior’s position or title, referent power may be at work instead. Often associated with individuals who inspire trust and respect, referent power is what’s needed to build a strong company culture and a loyal team. You could even say that referent power is what separates a boss from a true leader.

There are several different types of social power at work at any one time, both in the workplace and in life, and understanding them is a crucial part of navigating the dynamics of our relationships.

If your goal is to be respected as you foster a sense of community in your business, referent power can help you achieve your goals. But even as an employee, you can, of course, benefit from relationships that are rooted in trust, respect, and admiration.

Table of contents

What is referent power?

Referent power is your ability to influence people and earn their trust through your distinct character traits and values, such as your honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness.

What type of power is referent power?

Referent power (also known as ‘reverent’ power) falls under the ‘personal power’ category. This specific referent power definition is inspired by French and Raven’s 1959 paper “The Bases of Social Power.” Along with expert power, referent power completes the set of personal powers as outlined by the two researchers.

What other types of power are there?

French and Raven identify five types of power divided into two categories. The first category, known as formal power, has everything to do with your position. It consists of:

  • Legitimate power. This is the power one has purely based on their position in an organization. Those higher up exert more legitimate power, provided that those below recognize their authority. Think of a business owner or a CEO.
  • Coercive power. If someone is commanding employees through fear (e.g., fear of losing their job, or being demoted), they’re exerting coercive power. This type of power yields quick results but can easily increase turnover rates.
  • Reward power. If someone controls compliance through bonuses, raises, promotions, and the like, they’re exerting reward power. Although reward power can foster creativity and healthy competition, you should be careful not to give too much too soon, or it can devalue the rewards and warp incentives.

The second category, known as personal power, refers to the influence exerted through your personality and knowledge. It consists of:

  • Expert power. The ability to exert influence by convincing other team members of your unique knowledge and expertise. Learn more about expert power here. (In F4S we call this achievement influence.)
  • Referent power. The ability to exert influence by earning your colleagues’ trust and respect through a good display of character. (In F4S we call this affiliation or belongingness influence).

While it’s difficult to avoid the negative effects of formal power in business settings (bosses, managers, and CEOs are necessary, after all), leading through personal power seems to have more positive and long-lasting results. But employees’ perception of their boss/manager doesn’t just dictate performance. It can actually mean the difference between a successful business and a ruined public image.

Leaders can really thrive by creating environments that boost employee morale and enable them to do their best work. 

Why is referent power important?

Referent power is crucial to building a core company culture and establishing healthy working relationships. A better working environment means satisfied managers and happier employees. When cultivated properly, referent power can:

  • Motivate employees and increase job satisfaction. If you’re working with someone you trust and respect, you’re much more likely to find your job fulfilling. In addition, happy managers and leaders who enjoy what they do can set an example for others to follow.
  • Reduce stress and minimize counterproductive behavior. Leading through fear and power of position rarely bears the desired results in the modern workplace. Work environments that rely on traditional formal power models to get things done show higher stress levels across the board. According to O.C. Tanner’s job-hopping data report, 42% of millennials who have had at least 2 jobs say that their job creates an unhealthy amount of stress.
  • Help employees perform under pressure. If a leader exerts referent power, team members will respect and look up to them. They are thus more likely to go the extra mile and work harder when under pressure.
  • Get things done faster. In larger companies, bureaucracy reigns supreme. Trust and respect between teams and departments can help minimize bureaucratic procedures and accelerate workflow.
  • Boost collaborative initiatives. With less stress and more opportunities to share their thoughts and ideas, employees work together and share responsibility more often. As a result, they listen to each other and bring creative ideas to the table.
  • Build strong bonds and long-lasting relationships. Relationships built around formal power are ephemeral; they’re often too cold and calculated. Once the formal power dynamics shift, the relationship crumbles. On the contrary, relationships built around referent power last longer. Employees are much more likely to accept feedback and express their concerns when working with someone they respect or admire.
  • Keep employees aboard. As the saying goes, people don’t quit jobs; they quit bosses. Employees are much less likely to leave a company if they think highly of their boss or manager. In Hays’ 2019 “What People Want Survey,” 43% of 2,000 respondents said the reason that led them to search for a new job was corporate culture.

It seems then that referent power goes hand in hand with respect. Research shows that without respect, corporate culture suffers, and employees are much more likely to quit. According to TINYpulse’s 2018 retention report, employees who say there’s a low level of respect in the workplace are 26% more likely to quit their jobs.

Trust between teams is crucial to success. Here’s how you can build trust in a team—and boost your referent power at the same time.

What leader has referent power?

Anyone who can use their positive character traits to gain trust and respect in the workplace has referent power. The more trust and respect they inspire, the higher their referent power.


Generally, people with high emotional intelligence, empathy and an affective communication style and a motivation for affiliation will be likely to utilize referent power above other forms.

How do you use referent power?

Now that you know about the benefits of referent power, it’s time to start thinking of ways to gain more referent power and increase your influence in the workplace. Here’s how to build referent power:

  • Stay true to your values. People will have a hard time trusting you if you say one thing but end up doing another. Try to practice what you preach and be consistent with your core values. You owe that to yourself, first and foremost!
  • Show your team some love. Relationships take time and effort to develop. So when someone goes beyond their way to help you or the team, make sure to recognize their contribution with some much-deserved praise. Expressing your gratitude and making others feel appreciated is key to fostering a sense of trust.
  • Try to learn more about your colleagues. Yeah, work is work, but it never hurts to get a little bit more personal with your team. By asking people about their hobbies or families, you can forge special bonds over common interests and shared values. (Make sure to check out these 23 remote trusting building activities too.)
  • See your team as an asset. Your employees don’t come to work every day just to help your company grow. They also need to grow themselves, which is why you should take enough time to show that their success and personal growth matter to you. 
  • Listen to what your team has to say. Nothing says “I care” more than a colleague who’s fully present and really listens to what others have to say. When engaged in conversation, don’t let your mind drift away. Try to stay focused, and always turn to face the person who’s speaking.
  • Keep an open mind. This one isn’t always easy, especially when you’ve gained a lot of expert power through your specialized knowledge. Even though it may be difficult at times, try to remain open to new thoughts and ideas. That way, team members are much more likely to express issues and share important feedback with you.
  • Don’t keep secrets. Honesty is key to increasing your referent power. If you want people to trust and respect you, you need to give them more than one reason to do so. Share everything you know with your team. Admit your mistakes, and don’t be afraid to address doubts and uncertainties.

Note that referent power isn’t limited to those who already have formal power through their position. With the right approach and plenty of practice, any employee can gain expert and referent power.

What are some examples of referent power?

It may sound complicated, but there are actually plenty of opportunities for both leaders and employees to gain and exert referent power. Here are some referent power examples:

  • Alice owns a digital marketing agency that specializes in social media campaigns. She’s spent more than 10 years practicing strategies and coming up with ideas that drive results. She uses her expert power to build her referent power, guiding team members and helping them achieve similar success with their own clients. Even though she’s always busy, she finds time to mentor managers, writers, and designers. As a result, everyone appreciates her hard work, and she is trusted and respected in the office.
  • Tyler works as a manager for a large cybersecurity company. The business has strict guidelines, and many new hires struggle to adapt. When new employees on his team make mistakes, Tyler jumps to their defense, often spending hours trying to fix things. He’s patient and understanding and has thus built strong bonds with his colleagues. It’s no surprise his team is one of the most successful and fast-growing teams company-wide.
  • Sarah owns a small travel agency and knows how hard things have been with the worldwide travel bans, the strict COVID restrictions, and whatnot. She shares her struggles with her team and gives them time and space to express their own worries. Even though times are hard, she continues to stand beside them, offering advice and support in whatever way she can. Most employees respect her honesty and openness, staying with the agency even though their salaries have seen significant cuts over the past few months.

But referent power isn’t limited to the workplace. Close friends and family members can also exert referent power. Think of that time you let your mom cut your hair. She insisted she had the skills, and you trusted her, letting your love and respect for her overcome your hesitation. 

Celebrities and athletes often also have a great amount of referent power. They’re admired, trusted, and respected, and they often use their influence as a marketing tool. If you admire a certain athlete, you’re likely to follow them on social media and keep up with the events they participate in. If they then promote branded running shoes, you might be led to believe that these running shoes are of good quality or price—or whatever else the marketer wants you to believe. The world of affiliate marketing revolves around referent power.

Referent power should come first

Leading through fear is easy; leading through trust and respect, well, not so much. Although a degree of formal power is necessary to ensure things run as they should, inspiring too much fear can prove disastrous.

That’s because administrative behavior supported by high formal power undermines the human element that holds teams together. Really, who would you rather work for? An autocratic boss who bullies and terrorizes employees, or an inspiring leader who gives everyone the attention they deserve?

Referent power should always come first. Your teams and employees should always come first. Earn the respect that defines greatness—that should be your goal. Don’t be the boss of your business. Instead, be the leader your team needs.

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