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