5 Types of Power in Leadership: From Coercive Power to Referent Power
The constant hustle and change in today’s business world requires that leaders must also be digital pioneers. And as a leader, you’re at the center of a transformation that’s bigger than any we’ve seen before. Gone are the days when the boss was simply someone who handed out tasks from their corner office, using some form of coercive power to keep everyone in check. Now, leading a team or organization is more like being a ship’s captain. You must navigate uncharted digital waters on a daily basis, as you move processes and services online, and keep remote team members aligned and productive.
The only map is your leadership style. And the ability to keep your ship’s rudder on course – moving your organization forward toward a future built on innovation, adaptability, and profitable growth – relies largely on your social power and leadership skills.
Leadership Power in the Modern Workplace
Today’s power is nuanced. It’s not contained in the prestige of your position or the inherent authority your title carries. In a world where employees have traded cubicles for remote home offices, and customers increasingly demand services from the comfort of their living room couch, understanding the types of leadership power, and how to apply them to lead, influence, and motivate your team, is critical to your success.
Over half a century ago, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five distinct bases of social power, segmented into formal versus personal powers. Each base of power offers a distinct lens on leading and, sometimes, pushing people to get the job done.
These five bases of social power provide important insights that are still highly relevant, and you can use today to refine your leadership style and successfully navigate these changing times.
Using Formal Power to Enhance Your Leadership
Formal power refers to power that stems directly from your role in the organization. It’s tied to your title and the authority that comes with it, and there are three different types you can tap into as part of your leadership toolkit.
- Coercive Power
Coercive power comes from having the ability to punish or create negative consequences for your team. It’s the ‘stick’ in the classic carrot-and-stick approach. You’re using coercive power when, for example, you warn a project manager they’ll be replaced if their team misses an important project milestone.
While coercive power can certainly ensure compliance in the short term, relying on it too much can lead to significant downsides, like lower morale or higher turnover. It’s best used sparingly, to ensure standards, not to instill fear.
- Reward Power
If coercive power is the ‘stick’, then reward power is the ‘carrot’. It’s all about recognizing and rewarding your team’s accomplishments – large and small.
Let’s say you have a remote employee who has been consistently outperforming on their goals. By offering a well-earned bonus or a public shout-out during a virtual team meeting, you can motivate not just the individual but the whole team. Done right, reward power can create a positive work environment that encourages productivity and keeps job satisfaction high.
- Legitimate Power
Legitimate power comes from your official position in the organization. It’s the power you have because you’re in charge. You’ve got the authority to make decisions, set direction, and ask your team to follow you.
This power gives you the authority to make decisions and guide your team, but including your team in the decision-making process, as much as possible, builds trust, instills a sense of ownership, and leads to better outcomes for everyone. And in this age of remote work, it’s especially important to foster open communication and collaboration.
Leaning Into Personal Power to Build Respect and Trust
Personal Power isn’t about your title or role, it’s about you – your knowledge, charisma, and personality. There are two types of personal power you can leverage to enhance your leadership and drive success.
- Expert Power
This power comes from what you know. It’s your unique skills, knowledge, or expertise in a particular area. Maybe you’re a whiz at analytics, or you’ve got a knack for market trends. Expert power earns you respect and influence because of the value you bring to the table.
When it comes to expert power, your team respects you and listens to you because you know what you’re talking about. For example, when you share insights in a team meeting about market trends or breakdown strategic initiatives, that’s your expert power in action.
To keep your expert power sharp, commit to being a lifelong learner. Keep up with the latest trends and knowledge in your field will ensure you stay on your game.
- Referent Power
This is arguably the most enduring of the power types. Referent power is when your team respects and identifies with you on a personal level. Maybe you’re known for your integrity, your ability to empathize, or the way you always keep your cool under pressure. This is the power that builds strong, trust-based relationships, and it’s invaluable in today’s remote working environment where face-to-face interactions are limited and connections are crucial.
By letting your personality shine, even through a computer screen, you can cultivate a culture of respect and authenticity.
Balancing Formal and Personal Power in Leadership
In a time of accelerated change and increasing remote work, both formal and personal powers have an important place. However, the way they influence teams and shape organizations is changing.
The formal power types – coercive, reward, and legitimate – are still relevant and necessary. They help keep your organization moving toward its goals. After all, you need the authority to make decisions, set direction, distribute rewards, and, when needed, enforce standards.
Still, having a certain title or role is not enough to successfully lead your team and organization forward. Team members want to feel heard, respected, and valued. So, while formal power allows you to make the decisions, you’ll drive more innovation and accomplishment by opening the floor to your team for feedback and collaboration.
Ultimately, leveraging your formal power takes balance and a fair and transparent approach to rewards and penalties. That kind of authentic use of formal power helps ensure your team feels motivated and not threatened.
On the flip side, the personal power types – expert and referent – are becoming increasingly critical. Your team looks to you not just for assignments and directives, but for expertise and inspiration. You’ve got to be in the know, ready to offer insights and ideas that can keep your business ahead of the curve. And your personal traits – your integrity, empathy, and resilience, to name a few – will help you connect with your team on a deeper level. This is particularly essential in a remote work scenario, where building trust and rapport can be challenging but is absolutely vital.
Leading in the Digital Era: The Power is in Your Hands
The journey of leadership in today’s world is a nuanced one. It’s a delicate balance between authority and empathy, between setting direction and cultivating collaboration, between offering rewards and instilling discipline.
Your role as a business leader has evolved. Your team looks to you for guidance and motivation – and above all, a human connection. You’ve got the power to not just drive results but also inspire innovation, boost morale, and cultivate a culture where your team members are motivated, productive, and want to stay at the company. So, whether you’re pulling from your formal power to guide your team or your personal power to inspire and lead, success lies in striking the right balance. The balance will allow you to navigate your organization toward success.