Types of Power

You may have observed that not everyone acquires or even wants power. However, with regard to those who have power in organizational settings, you may have wondered how they achieved it. In answer to this question, researchers have identified several types of power, which can be classified into two categories: interpersonal and situational or structural.

Interpersonal Types of Power

Interpersonal power refers to the type of power that can be exerted within the relationship between leaders and subordinates. After many years of research, social psychologists J.R.P. French and B. Raven identified five types of interpersonal power used by managers to influence, persuade, or motivate their employees.1These are legitimate power, reward power, coercive power, expert power, and referent power.

Legitimate Power

In an organizational context, both legitimate power and authority refer to the idea that power is based on position and mutual consent. Position refers to the fact that a person has been granted power by the organization to make decisions within a specific area of responsibility. For example, a safety inspector is empowered to make decisions concerning the health and security of employees. Mutual consent refers to the idea that other employees believe the person holding power has a right to give them directives. More simply, mutual consent occurs when other employees perceive the manager's directives as legitimate and accept them without question. Not all directives given by a person in a position of authority are perceived as legitimate. When the employee does not perceive the directive as legitimate, the leader is not able to exercise position power. An employee will probably comply with a safety inspector's order to wear safety glasses, but not an order to fetch a cup of coffee.

Reward Power

Reward power is the ability to influence the behavior of another by controlling rewards. In an organizational setting, a manager usually uses reward power to encourage good performance. Typical rewards in organizational settings include monetary bonuses, extended vacation periods, promotions, flexible hours, pay increases, and gifts.

Coercive Power

Coercive power refers to one person's ability to impose an unpleasant action on another. This usually takes the form of punishing a subordinate for not following instructions. Forms of punishment include suspension without pay, reprimands, undesirable work shifts, closer supervision, tighter enforcement of work rules, or dismissal.

Expert Power

Expert power refers to a person's capacity to influence others owing to specific skills and abilities. The confidence of others in the expertise of the person with expert power is essential to the effectiveness of this type of power. New managers may have less expert power than their employees.

Referent Power

If you can influence behavior simply because you are liked or admired, you have referent power. There are many examples of referent power in and out of the workplace; think of all the movie stars, sports figures, and other famous people in advertisements. Since these people are admired, they influence the buying behavior of the general population. Similarly, a well-liked executive who has been particularly successful may have referent power over younger managers who seek to copy the executive's management style.

The above five types of interpersonal power are either position-based or person-based . Legitimate power, reward power, and coercive power are position-based because they are conferred on people as a result of their hierarchical position in the organization; these powers are controlled by the organization, which can withdraw them at any time. Expert power and referent power depend on the personal characteristics of an individual and, therefore, are not controlled by the organization.

Which of the five forms of power is most useful to a leader in an organizational setting depends on the goals of the person controlling the sources of power. Reward power, coercive power, and legitimate power are effective only if managers maintain close supervision of subordinates so that rewards and punishment are provided immediately following the behavior. Those with referent power can have a major influence on the behavior of others and should use their power to advance organizational goals. The manager who acquires and effectively uses expert power is the most likely to improve performance and employee satisfaction.