French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power
Understanding Where Power Comes From in the Workplace
What’s the source of your power? Leadership and power are closely linked. People tend to follow those who are powerful. And because others follow, the person with power leads.
But leaders have power for different reasons. Some are powerful because they alone have the ability to give you a bonus or a raise. Others are powerful because they can fire you, or assign you tasks you don’t like. Yet, while leaders of this type have formal, official power, their teams are unlikely to be enthusiastic about their approach to leadership, if this is all they rely on.
On the more positive side, leaders may have power because they’re experts in their fields, or because their team members admire them. People with these types of power don’t necessarily have formal leadership roles, but they influence others effectively because of their skills and personal qualities. And when a leadership position opens up, they’ll probably be the first to be considered for promotion.
Do you recognize these types of power in those around you – or in yourself? And how does power influence the way you work and live your life?
One of the most notable studies on power was conducted by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, in 1959. They identified five bases of power:
1. Legitimate – This comes from the belief that a person has the formal right to make demands, and to expect compliance and obedience from others.
2. Reward – This results from one person’s ability to compensate another for compliance.
3. Expert – This is based on a person’s superior skill and knowledge.
4. Referent – This is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness, and right to respect from others.
5. Coercive – This comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance.
If you’re aware of these sources of power, you can better understand why other people influence you. You can also understand how your own power works and develop your own personal power.
A president, prime minister, or monarch has legitimate power. So does a CEO, a teacher or a fire chief. Electoral mandates, social hierarchies, cultural norms, and organizational structure all provide the basis for legitimate power.
This type of power, however, can be unpredictable and unstable. If you lose the title or position, legitimate power can instantly disappear – since others were influenced by the position, not by you. Also, your scope of power is limited to situations that others believe you have a right to control. If the fire chief tells people to stay away from a burning building, they’ll probably listen. But if he tries to make people stay away from a street fight, people may well ignore him. Therefore, relying on legitimate power as your only way to influence others isn’t enough. To be a leader, you need more than this – in fact, you may not need legitimate power at all.
Many teachers love legitimate power. In your experience, are they good teachers?
People in power are often able to give out rewards. Raises, promotions, desirable assignments, training opportunities, and even simple compliments – these are all examples of rewards controlled by people “in power.” If others expect that you’ll reward them for doing what you want, there’s a high probability that they’ll do it.
The problem with this power base is that you may not have as much control over rewards as you need. Supervisors probably don’t have complete control over salary increases, and managers often can’t control promotions, all by themselves. And even a CEO needs permission from the board of directors for some actions.
So, when you use up available rewards, or when the rewards don’t have enough perceived value to others, your power weakens. Another problem with rewards is that you must give a bigger reward every time in order to motivate people.
This source of power is also problematic, and can be subject to abuse. What’s more, it can cause unhealthy behavior and dissatisfaction in the workplace.
Threats and punishment are common tools of coercion. Implying or threatening that someone will be fired, demoted, denied privileges, or given undesirable assignments – these are examples of using coercive power. While your position may give you the capability to coerce others, it doesn’t automatically mean that you have the will or the justification to do so. As a last resort, you may sometimes need to punish people. However, extensive use of coercive power is rarely appropriate in an organizational setting.
Clearly, relying on these forms of power alone will result in a very cold, technocratic, impoverished style of leadership. To be a true leader, you need a more robust source of power than can be supplied by a title, an ability to reward, or an ability to punish.
When you have knowledge and skills that enable you to understand a situation, suggest solutions, use solid judgment, and generally outperform others, people will probably listen to you. When you demonstrate expertise, people tend to trust you and respect what you say. As a subject matter expert, your ideas will have more value, and others will look to you for leadership in that area.
What’s more, you can take your confidence, decisiveness, and reputation for rational thinking – and expand them to other subjects and issues. This is a good way to build and maintain expert power. It doesn’t require positional power, so you can use it to go beyond that. This is one of the best ways to improve your leadership skills.
This is sometimes thought of as charisma, charm, admiration, or appeal. Referent power comes from one person liking and respecting another, and strongly identifying with that person in some way. Celebrities have referent power, which is why they can influence everything from what people buy to whom they elect to office. In a workplace, a person with charm often makes everyone feel good, so he or she tends to have a lot of influence.
Referent power can be a big responsibility, because you don’t necessarily have to do anything to earn it. Therefore, it can be abused quite easily. Someone who is likable, but lacks integrity and honesty, may rise to power – and use that power to hurt and alienate people as well as gain personal advantage.
Relying on referent power alone is not a good strategy for a leader who wants longevity and respect. When combined with expert power, however, it can help you to be very successful.
1. What sorts of power do the worst teachers use?
2. What sorts of power do mediocre teachers use?
3. What sorts of power do the best teachers use?
4. Choose one of the following and describe how the person uses power. A) Ghengis Khan B) Sejong the Great C) Lee Hyo-ri D) Gong Ji-young E) Michael Jordan
5. What kinds of power do you use well? What kinds of power do you need to develop? Explain your decisions.