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Sources of Power

What Is Power? 

Power is the capacity to exert influence over others and to get them to act. You can tell if someone has power when they get other people to act, change their attitudes, or change their behavior. Power is particularly useful to promote a change in an organization that employees or customers would resist on their own. Power is also useful in resolving political conflict within organizations.

The 6 Bases of Power

How do individuals gain power over others? What are the sources of their power? In 1959 French and Raven classified five sources of power* and later expanded this list to six sources of power. They are as follows:

1. Coercive power: the power of using force or the threat of force. The person exercising coercive power uses punishments or the perceived threat of harm to get what she wants. Coercive power is the source of power most likely to encounter resistance.

2. Reward power: the power of using desired rewards to encourage or bribe people into compliance. These rewards can include bonuses, promotions and public awards.

3. Legitimate power: the formal authority that comes from a position. Followers may do what is asked by people of higher authority, titles or rank. (The use of the word “legitimate” refers to the legitimacy of the position and how the person rightly holds it.) Legitimate power is more likely to influence others if it is used within the person’s scope of authority. A teacher is more likely to receive homework assigned to students than he is to receive homework assigned to random people outside of a school setting.

4. Referent power: the power over followers that comes from the follower’s desire to be liked by the powerful. This power is based on admiration, trust, charisma and even celebrity.

5. Expert power: the power that comes from expertise or knowledge. People value others based on their perception of expertise, and they want to do things correctly or expertly so they rely on experts for guidance. Professionals such as doctors, attorneys, and accountants have power over others who follow their expert advice.

6. Informational power: The ability to form arguments and transform data into information is a basis for power in an organization. Keeping that information hidden from others is a way of maintaining that power. A person may gain allies by sharing key information only with key people. Withholding or falsifying information can leave enemies weak.

Power Outcomes

There are three different possible outcomes that can result from the use of power.* The first is resistance, an attempt to subvert or challenge power. Resistant followers do not agree with the use of power and act to oppose it or refuse to execute directions. The second possible outcome is compliance, in which followers go along with the use of power but do not feel committed to it. The third is an even more positive outcome, commitment. Committed followers view the use of power as appropriate.

Different sources of power are likely to give rise to different outcomes:

The use of coercive power is the more likely to be met with resistance compared with the use of any other source of power. Resistance will be the most likely result if the use of coercive power is perceived to be abusive or manipulative. To avoid this perception, it is best to create a sense of fairness and justice by informing subordinates of penalties and rules. Punishments must be given consistently and should be handed out only after it is clear that the subordinate has failed. Since resistance is often the result of coercive power, so its use should be reserved for extreme behaviors such as theft or other illegal activities.

The use of reward power is most likely to be met with compliance. If the rewards have personal meaning to the subordinate, then the outcome might be commitment. If the rewards are inconsistent or manipulative, this use of power might lead to resistance.

The use of legitimate power is also most likely to be met with compliance. The use of one’s position for power over others can be met with resistance if the demands are made in an arrogant way or if the demands are not appropriate for the person’s position. If demands are made politely and nicely, they may be met with commitment from subordinates.

The use of referent power will likely be met by subordinate commitment. When using referent power, the key is to communicate how requests are important to the person with the power. Subordinates will only be compliant if they perceive the request to be unimportant to the person making the request. Worse yet, subordinates will be resistant to requests if they perceive that they are being asked to harm the person with the referent power. Ultimately, referent power is about liking the person with the power, and people do not want to hurt individuals they like.

The use of expert power or informational power is also likely to be met with commitment. This outcome is most likely if the subordinates share the same goals as the leader. Compliance is more likely if the subordinates do not care about the task goals. Subordinates will resist expert power or informational power if they disagree with task goals or if the leader is condescending or arrogant.