For as long as humans have existed, we have attempted to influence, establish dominance, and exercise power over one another. As we have moved into the information age, as society has become more civilized, and the workplace is increasingly recognizing the intrinsic human rights we hold, the ways in which employers enforce power and employees receive it has changed. Now softer, more subtle, and more sophisticated forms of power, like persuasion, negotiation, nudges, and influence, are more often used than the blunt instruments of reward, threat, and punishment.
Understanding and recognizing different types of power, how we might be subject to them, and how we might be able to protect ourselves from unwarranted influences of power is essential in not just the modern workplace, but life. Employers and managers are using more advanced tools to monitor how we do work, how to influence our behavior via nudges and subtle messaging, and how to ensure our compliance. Being aware of the power dynamics at play will not only allow us to take advantage of the circumstances we find ourselves in, but it will also help us avoid the pitfalls that come with workplace politics.
In 1959, the social psychologists, John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, released a paper called “The Bases of Power,” where they attempted to define the five most common sources of social power that an entity (a person, group, organization), may have on a person. They acknowledge that there could be more, and, in 1965, Raven added a sixth.
French and Raven noted that power can be studied in two directions. First, one can attempt to determine the behavior and motivation of the agent that exerts power. Second, one can try to understand the perspective of the person on whom power is exerted. It is from this latter point of view that the scientists compiled this list.
They defined power as influence and the ability to induce psychological change, which “includes changes in behavior, opinion, attitudes, goals, needs, values, and all other aspects of the person’s psychological field.” Essentially, they studied the means by which an agent can instill a change in another person to get what they want.
The work of French and Raven has been cited in human resource management and organizational culture textbooks and studies as leaders and researchers aim to further understand what influences and motivates people to act the way they do. Their work is also notable in that it recognizes that some people who might not have a formal leadership position may still exert power over others.
The five original bases of power are coercive, reward, legitimate, referent, and expert. Informational power was added later. The bases of power are categorized as formal or personal. Formal power is defined by a person’s position in an organization, while personal power is based on a one’s followers. Coercive, reward, and legitimate sources of power are formal, while the rest are personal. Further, formal sources of power require surveillance or monitoring of those being influenced in order to be effective.
Reward power stems from the ability of an agent to bestow or refuse any tangible, emotional, social, or spiritual rewards upon a person based on one’s performance. It can be impersonal, in that rewards are something like money, promotions, or rewards, or personal, in that the rewards are social approval or acknowledgement. Personal rewards, like praise and gratefulness, are basically unlimited, while impersonal rewards can be finite and can lead to diminished power if the rewards are distributed faster than can be replenished.
Coercive power is based on the ability of an agent to threaten or punish a person based on whether or not he fails to achieve expected requirements. The main goal of coercive power is compliance. Similar to reward power, it can also be impersonal (tied to the ability of an agent to threaten, fine, or dismiss) or personal (linked to the disapproval of a person whose opinion is highly valued). This is rarely used in organizations, except if a company is going through cutbacks, because the threat of constant punishment can lead to resentment and an abusive organizational culture.
Legitimate power is derived from one’s hierarchical position in an organization and whether or not that position is accepted and the power is contextually appropriate. In other words, legitimate power is sensed when someone has a higher ranked position than another and their power is justified to the context in which it is used. Legitimate power is often bestowed upon someone who is elected, anointed, or selected for their position. A non-hierarchical organization or one without a clear chain of command can lead to this type of power being weakened.
Referent power is felt by people who wish to be associated with an agent, group, or organization. Those who wield it often have earned this power over time as a trusted and respected role model, whose behavior is admired by those that follow them. It is not a formal source of power as someone with referent power can still influence those around him without a traditional title. Referent power requires time to model desirable behavior and to foster close relationships in order to be maximally useful. It can be positive (association and actions are positively correlated) or negative (associations that lead to actions that are opposite of that intended).
Those with expert power have significant knowledge and experience in their field to be granted respect and decision-making power. Those with a prior reputation, established qualifications, and a history of successes are likely to use expert power regardless of official title, making this a form of personal power. It is important to note that expert power is not everlasting, but requires knowledge maintenance, it is not necessarily ethical, and it tends to be limited in scope and should be received cautiously in situations outside of the expert’s domain.
Informational power can be defined as the ability of an agent or group to use, manipulate, share, limit, or process information in order to influence others, establish credibility, make decisions, and control. As opposed to the first five types of social power, informational power is socially independent, meaning that the change in one’s behavior cannot always be traced back to the agent of change, who initially provided the information. It can be direct, information received straight from the influencing agent, or indirect, via hints or suggestions.
These are the six types of social power as established by French and Raven. Perhaps you are able to think of others and you might have noticed how some of these characterizations of power might overlap with one another. Another recent addition to the list is connection power, which comes from being associated with someone already powerful. While the names and distinctions between the different types are academic, being aware and understanding how one might be influenced by them or how one might be received if they use it is essential in life and the workplace. Not all power should be followed blindly. Understanding where people are deriving their sources of power and if it is deserved, earned, or warranted is important if we want to continue to be better leaders and followers.
Thank you for reading.
Interested in learning more? You can support me by:
- Purchasing these books for further exploration: The 48 Laws of Power and Give and Take
- Keeping up with my work on Instagram or Twitter
- Signing up for my mailing list below (on mobile) or the right side bar (on desktop)