Leadership Sources of Power

Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is the formal authority granted through the organization and job description. A project manager is placed in charge of a project team so they may delegate tasks. A supervisor is given legitimate power over their subordinates so they can ask for a range of behaviors from the new employee. One will find this power source useful as you begin leading any team, however it cannot be relied upon alone to make you an effective leader.
Reward Power

As leaders we may be granted both control over what others value and the ability to change negative aspects of the job giving us reward power. We see reward power used when a manager gives salary increases based on performance or when a supervisor replaces faulty equipment. Rewards can be as simple as allowing a person to work on a special project or attend training, granting favorable shifts or bringing in pizza. If employees are given feedback systems to evaluate their managers or co-workers, they also hold reward power. The risk in using only reward power is that you may have a limited supply or the rewards may become too commonplace, losing their power.

Coercive Power

Both team leaders and members may apply coercive power, the ability to punish with the goal of compliance. Punishment is an old-fashioned “carry a big stick” management style. Managers who use this power threaten to fire or layoff employees who fail to meet their standards. Team members apply coercive power through gossip or open demands of co-workers when they break the team norms. Coercive power often results in negative relationships since adults naturally resent being punished. With today’s intelligent workforce, using coercive power alone will result in a team who comply with orders only when the manager is watching.

Organizational Sources of PowerLegitimate, reward and coercive power are all associated with the organization. The company, your team and where your job sits in the corporate ladder will influence how these sources of power may be available to you.

Many leaders become successful due to their own personal power sources.

Expert PowerHave you ever noticed the respect we give to experts who help us solve problems? Expert power comes from specialized knowledge. A software engineer who arrives with a specialized skill set may have considerable influence on the team’s decisions and direction even if that person lacks any organizational power.

Referent PowerThe charismatic individual has referent power. We follow them because we admire their personality and wish to be like them. Who is your office celebrity, the person everyone wants to follow?

Those who hold expert and referent power may move their power from one group to another because they hold it personally. A charismatic politician may be elected to several different positions. An expert computer security guru may job hop from organization to organization.

When we look at all five sources of power it is the combinations that are most interesting:

  • A new supervisor may rely heavily on the use of legitimate and coercive power. Without reward, referent or expert power, the team will often comply outwardly with the supervisor, but will secretly work against the supervisor’s formal and oppressive style.
  • A manager who abandons their team, giving neither feedback or rewards for good performance is withholding their legitimate or reward power. Within abandoned teams employees may take on a leadership role by exercising their expert or referent power. Some employees may use a form of punishment, such as leaving others undesirable tasks, in order to force their co-workers to comply to their own standards.
  • A charming project manager may use legitimate and referent power to influence their team. Project managers often have a limited ability to reward or punish team members for failing to perform. The charismatic manager may recruit a technical person to co-lead the team, adding an expert power source.

Organizational and Personal Sources of PowerIn 1959, John French and Bertram H. Raven examined the five different sources that come from the organization and the individual.

Based on the five source model, what power combinations do you use to influence others in your daily activities? 

What combinations do you see others in your organization use?

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