When you hear the word ‘power’, it is hard not to immediately think about ‘control’. Thanks to the negative connotation, many leaders run a mile at the thought of using ‘power’ as part of their leadership toolkit, but it can be a successful tool to engage, influence and motivate team members.

Power doesn’t need to be a dirty word and when leaders understand how the different forms can be used positively, it can be beneficial to both the leader and the employee. As many employers lean towards flatter organisational structures and autonomous and empowered employees, it is time that leaders reflect on their relationship with how, when and where they use power in their role.

The six types of power

In a 1959 study, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven famously defined five types of power that are present in social situations. In 1965, Raven went on to identify a sixth type. When used to influence another person, each of these six forms of power has different impacts on relationships and outcomes.

The six types of power are outlined below:

1. Reward

Reward power is commonly used and usually positively received. It is the ability for a leader to reward team members for reaching and exceeding targets or goals. It can be seen in the form of bonuses, pay increases or even promotions. The reward is the ‘power’ as it incentivises employees to perform at an elevated level.

Sometimes leaders want to use reward power more frequently, but are restricted by culture, budgets, and systems to accurately measure results. When the reward dries up, the power is weakened and when the employee receives the benefit; the power disappears.

2. Coercive

Coercive power is the opposite of reward power and involves forcing/coercing someone to do a task against their will. This is usually done by having the ‘power’ to punish them for being non-compliant. Coercive power is understandably closely aligned to negative effects and when used repeatedly may lead to turnover and bullying claims. It can, however, be used positively to demonstrate ‘cause and effect’ for aspects such as safety where compliance is paramount.

3. Expert

Expert power is used by a person who has unique or superior knowledge in a subject needed by the business. Leaders or employees with expert power can earn peer respect based on their knowledge, but if that is used to leverage unfair benefits or to operate in a silo, then there are negative impacts. A person with expert power can be influential and bring excellent results if the motivator is not personal gain.

4. Legitimate

Legitimate power is derived from a position or a construct of formal relationships. Leaders have legitimate power based on their position and what they are entrusted and empowered to do. For example, a leader has the power (after procedural fairness) to provide a warning to an employee that has been found to be in breach of a workplace policy. This power is normally used as intended, but sometimes leaders misuse or lose power with a new appointment.

5. Referent

When individuals are well liked, there is a tendency to want to go the extra mile for them or be influenced by their opinions. Referent power is based on being liked and respected and the power is derived by the person’s perceived value, worth or attractiveness.

Sometimes, leaders will ask someone in the workgroup with clear referent power to help them in getting the team on board with modern technology or processes. It can work extremely well, particularly in times of key change; however, it can also be easily misused.

6. Informational

Informational power is seen at the ability to withhold or divulge powerful information. It is often derived from having direct access to confidential information that others don’t know (information asymmetry). For example, a payroll officer has the power of knowledge of each employee’s salary which they can use to leverage their own case or someone else’s. However, once the information is shared, the power is gone.

Examples of how power can be used in a positive manner in the workplace:

Workplace culture – when used with the right intent and approach, reward and referent power can increase performance, productivity, and engagement.
Employee performance – legitimate and reward power can be effectively used to motivate the team to achieve goals.
Quality and competition – an employee’s expert power can be wisely used to gain a competitive edge or improve the quality and safety of products or services.
Compliance – there is nothing more important than safety and this comes from compliance. For example, mining organisations effectively use legitimate and coercive power to achieve high safety standards and employee safety.
Neutralise negativity – leaders with referent power can use their likeability and influence to neutralise negativity with impending changes or unpopular decisions. They can also use it to lead by example; e.g. reducing leave liability with positive outcomes.
Increasing knowledge – leaders or senior employees with expert and referent power are usually successful in increasing the knowledge and performance of others within the team when they are willing to actively share. For example, a leader that has a strength in negotiating can share tips to assist workers with client negotiations.

Choose the carrot; not the stick

Strong, secure leaders seek to use ‘power’ with good intentions and want to understand how and when to use the most effective type of power. While many leaders choose the carrot over the stick, others will hide behind their legitimate power and coerce workers to get the job done. It can be tempting to want to light a fire ‘under’ employees, but truthfully the biggest rewards come to leaders who are able to light a fire ‘within’ workers.

To use power effectively, you need to understand its limits and its capability. When used well, it is an impactful tool to enact change within your circle of influence and achieve impressive results. However, with the wrong intent and approach; power can become an unnecessary handicap to organisational success and is merely just a dirty word.

Further information

Ai Group has experienced HR consultants who can partner with your business to enhance your leadership effectiveness. Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 20 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.