What is power? Whether we like it or not, we all exercise power over each other every day. We use our position, status, knowledge, or influence to get people to do what we want.
Social psychologists have identified different types of power at work in both our personal and professional lives. Naturally, not all types of power are created equal, and as a leader, you have to make sure you develop your power style appropriately to have the best influence.
For example, people are more likely to follow leaders who seem knowledgeable and respectful, and less likely to stand behind leaders who rely on fear and rigid power structures to get things done.
But what's your leadership style, and what kind of power do you exert? Read on to learn more about power as you find new ways to lead and inspire.
Most research on social power today is based on a very influential paper published by John French and Bertram Raven in 1959. They wrote extensively about the forms of power people use, touching on the psychological changes and effects these powers bring in broader social contexts.
When French and Raven talk about the basis of power, they refer to the dynamic relationship between O, the one who exerts it, and P, the person (or group) upon whom that power is exercised. They allude to many possible dynamic bases but only define the five most common:
The first three are known as 'positional power', as they rely upon your position in the social hierarchy. The remaining two are types of 'personal power', which involve interpersonal skills and exerting a more positive form of influence.
Let's have a look at each of these types of power, and how you can best make use of them.
French and Raven define reward power as "power whose basis is the ability to reward." In the modern workplace, these rewards come in many shapes and forms – think raises, promotions, paid vacation, simple compliments; the list goes on. We're all much more inclined to do the things we're told if we know we'll be getting something in return.
Here are some reasons why you may want to use reward power in the workplace:
That said, reward power isn't always the best solution:
So how do you use reward power correctly? First, you need to know what you're trying to achieve with these rewards. You also should know enough about your team members to introduce rewards they'll find interesting.
For example, let's say you want to incentivize collaboration, and your teams consist of high-performing individuals who have trouble communicating. Introducing personal rewards might not be such a good idea - appropriate team rewards would make a lot more sense.
Coercive power gets a bad rap, mainly because it's often abused by those who find themselves on top of power structures. Those who exercise coercive power use fear, threats, and punishment as tools for conformity.
Coercive power can establish boundaries and force compliance. It can be used to prevent harassment and discrimination (e.g., a boss threatens to fire someone who's consistently bullying and harassing a colleague), but it's also helpful in dealing with disobedient employees who have fallen out of line (by taking longer breaks, arriving late at work, etc.).
Admittedly, coercive power comes with many disadvantages:
In moderation, coercive power kind of works. You can use it to minimize negativity, improve working conditions, and cross out insubordination. Careful, though – leading through fear is highly unpopular among employees, and it's bound to raise some eyebrows.
Legitimate power is perhaps the most prevalent and ubiquitous form of power in society. It refers to the formal authority given to a person as a result of their position in a hierarchical system. Such systems include governments, religious denominations, businesses, and other organizations. Your position within a hierarchical system determines the power you have over people who find themselves below you.
It's important to note that your legitimate power disappears if you lose your position. At its core, legitimate power is built on a perception – it's only valid as long as the people who comprise the system accept its structure.
Legitimate power is necessary:
As a thought leader who wants to inspire and influence others, you should be wary of legitimate power – it can never encourage employee loyalty on its own. The same is true for the other two formal powers we've already touched on. And as is the case with all three positional powers, it lends itself to plenty of abusive practices.
Think of the boss who forces employees to comply with a controversial decision without offering much clarification or justification. Everyone has to comply because "that's what the boss said."
Think of the new HR director who's friends with the boss but whose performance is substandard. There's nothing anyone in HR can do about it.
Now that we've discussed all three formal powers, it's time to introduce you to the personal powers all effective leaders take advantage of. According to French and Raven, referent power has its basis in the identification of P (the 'receiver') with O (the one wielding the power), where identification is defined as a feeling of 'oneness' between the two.
In other words, someone who exerts referent power does so because they inspire respect and admiration. Leaders with formal power use fear and coercion to get things done, whereas referent leaders lead by example.
Because it doesn't draw on traditional forms of hierarchical power, referent power is unique in its ability to create meaningful and resilient bonds in the workplace. It can quickly shift the established power dynamics, giving people more room to work together.
Great leaders know that referent power can:
Knowing how to develop referent power is a valuable leadership skill. That said, there are a few things you should keep in mind:
Expert power is another personal power that can be present without a formal title. According to French and Raven, the strength of the expert power of O varies with the extent of the knowledge or perception which P attributes to O within a given area. In short, it's power or influence exerted as a result of one's attributed knowledge or expertise.
Note also how this power lies with P's (the person upon whom power is exerted) perception of O's knowledge. What does that mean for you? Well, being knowledgeable isn't enough to develop expert power. You need to convince others of your expertise - and that's the real challenge here.
If you have expert power, you can offer guidance and help your teams grow. Once you've established yourself as an expert, people are much more likely to put their trust in you. If you're not a leader already, expert power will offer you a solid power base upon which you can build your reputation as you aim higher.
But expert power also has its disadvantages:
Although not part of the original five powers, informational power was later added to the list by Raven in 1965. It turns out information is power, after all. Someone who exerts informational power either a) has access to more data than others on a specific subject or b) knows something that can be used as leverage to make others comply.
Unlike the other five powers we've already mentioned, informational power has short-term effects. It can be positional or personal, depending on who uses it and how.
For example, think of a big company that announced an imminent downsizing action plan without going into details. Directors who know who will be laid off have informational power due to their position. Now, think of a laid-off manager who is hired by a competitor. They have personal informational power if they know a lot about their ex-employer's data, future plans, etc.
In any case, informational power is bound to the content of a specific situation. It's transitory and situational – it can't be used consistently, and it goes away once it's shared.
As you can probably tell, all powers have their uses. The two personal powers (expert and referent) can help you build trust and loyalty, which is why they appear time and time again in numerous leadership theories.
Formal powers can help you assert your leadership power, but you should always make an effort to use them in moderation. Excessive use of positional power might simplify decision-making, but it will undoubtedly render you highly unpopular with your subordinates – no one likes tyrants.
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