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Six sources of power to achieve your goals

You can be more successfully by harnessing the six sources of power to achieve your goals. Not sure how? Read on!

Think of colleagues that you’ve worked with over the years. Some may have had deep industry expertise, others may have been ‘big characters’, influencing through sheer force of personality.

Perhaps some of the colleagues you’ve experienced were bullies, using subtle (or not so subtle) threats to achieve their goals.

All these individuals were using different sources of power to achieve their goals.

Understanding Power

Power is the ability to influence the activities of other people towards achieving your goal.

The six sources of power were originally defined by two social psychologists, French and Raven. The first three sources of power are more related to position in the organization, the last two are more personal.

  1. Legitimate power: comes from the role or position that a person holds
  2. Reward power: is based on a person’s ability to give legitimate rewards
  3. Informational power: is the ability to control information (by sharing or withholding)
  4. Coercive power: is based on the threat of force or punishment
  5. Expert power: is based on a person’s ability to share or withhold expertise
  6. Referent power: is the power of charisma

It’s important to note: your power is contextual and will vary depending on who you are trying to influence and what goals you are aiming to achieve.

For example: Leading your team through change is a different challenge to persuading another team to help you with the same project, and the sources of power and influence available to you will also be different. (That’s why it’s so important to understand power!).

Six Sources of Power

Legitimate power

Legitimate power comes from a job role or position and the right this infers, that others will be compliant and follow instructions.

For example: a Doctor can legitimately ask questions about health and lifestyle, and can reasonably expect you to answer those questions (it’s part of their ‘territory’ as Doctor).

It’s important to note that there are limits to Legitimate Power, and those limits are defined by the scope of the role. A Doctor can legitimately ask “how often do you exercise” but if they asked “Which gym do you go to?” you may start to feel they’re straying outside of what’s acceptable or ‘legitimate’.

In the workplace you can build your legitimate power. The obvious way to do this is to get a promotion to a more senior role, however even in your current role you can explore how to develop your legitimate power.

Take a lighthearted look at legitimate power, Big Bang Theory style:

Legitimate power: Top Tips

Take the time to understand your company’s policies, values, strategy, and other resources. These are all resources that you can tap into, as you build and use your legitimate power.

For example, if two of your team are not cooperating you could say “You may not like each other, but I want the two of you to work more effectively together”. But it may be more effective to say “Collaboration is one of our company’s values, you may not like each other, but you’re required to work effectively together”.

In the second option you’re using your legitimate power to influence their behavior.

Reward power

Reward power is quite straight forward, it’s based on a person’s ability to give rewards. These may be bonuses, promotions, development opportunities.

Even compliments and positive feedback can be a powerful reward when done properly.

Reward power: Top Tips

Don’t underestimate the power of compliments and recognition. There are limits to the tangible rewards you can offer, but can always use the power of positive feedback and celebrate the successes of those around you, it costs you nothing!

For more on reward power, take a look at how to balance total rewards for different generations.

Informational power

Informational power is the ability to control information (either sharing or withholding). It wasn’t originally part of the French and Raven work, but was added later to complete the six sources of power and is even more relevant in today’s information intensive world.

Your job provides you with a baseline of informational power (for example you may be on the distribution for certain reports, attend meetings, have access to systems – all of which will provide you with sources of informational power). Working on specific projects also provides a source of power. However, both these sources of power are quite limited. They’re likely to empower you to manage your team, but among your peers and above, you need to look for additional sources of informational power.

Informational power: Top Tips

There are several ways to develop your informational power. Here are a few sources of informational that it’s worth considering:

  1. Your company’s annual report
  2. Analysts reports (into your company and your industry)
  3. Online subscriptions to leading websites in your field
  4. Expert blogs, forums, etc

Coercive power

Coercive power is based on the threat of force or punishment.

For example: threats to withhold bonuses or require longer working hours, or it could be more subtle forms of punishment such as social exclusion or micro-inequities (being ignored in meetings, for example).

There are many dangers involved in using coercive power in the workplace: it will likely build a culture of resistance, fail to get the best performance from those around you, limit your ability to build a high performing team and damage your reputation as a leader.

For these reasons, coercive power is the only one of the six bases of power not recommended in today’s workplace. It is valuable to be aware of this form of power, so you can limit the impact of others exerting this power over you.

Expert power

Expert power is based on experience, knowledge and expertise. This form of power is very common in organizations as most roles are specialized, however it also takes a significant investment of time and energy to achieve.

For example: a software engineer may invest thousands of hours in becoming expert in a specific programing language, or a sales person may dedicate their career to developing their sales skills.

Because of the level of investment involved, it’s worth thinking about exactly what experience, knowledge and expertise will benefit you most.

Make sure you’re building your expert power in a way that will give you the greatest return on the investment of time and energy.

You’ll need to consider the emerging trends in your field, opportunities for growth that align with your career goals, then design an Individual Development Plan that meets your needs.

More on expert power from Mindtools.

Expert power: Top Tips

Invest in actively building your reputation as an expert. Apply your expertise for the benefit of others and the organization (without being arrogant or self-serving). With the right reputation, your colleagues will come to you for advice, your ideas will carry greater weight and you’ll find it easier to persuade people to adopt your plans.

Here are 5 ways you can actively build your reputation:

  1. Offer to be a Mentor to less experienced colleagues
  2. Be willing to talk about previous experience, eg: “The last time I worked on this type of project I discovered that…
  3. Look for opportunities to write for the leading publications in your field
  4. Join external organizations, associations, networks that will help to demonstrate your expertise
  5. Look for internal opportunities to apply your expertise: cross functional initiatives, new projects, etc.

Referent power

Referent power is more easily understood as the power of charisma.

Charisma is rooted in strong social and communication skills and the ability to engender trust and devotion in others.

It is the most personal of all the six sources of power.

However, it is not related to a person’s character, or their integrity, or their commitment to supporting others and pursuing the goals of the organization. As a result it can be negative or positive (self-serving or serving the greater good).

More on the charismatic leadership power.

Six sources of power: key points

Understanding the six sources of power – how to build them, and how to apply them effectively – will help you and your team to succeed.

The six sources of power, originally developed by French and Raven, are:

  1. Legitimate power: comes from the role or position that a person holds
  2. Reward power: is based on a person’s ability to give legitimate reward
  3. Informational power: is the ability to control information (by sharing or withholding)
  4. Coercive power: is based on the threat of force or punishment
  5. Expert power: is based on a person’s ability to share or withhold expertise
  6. Referent power: is the power of charisma

Remember, expert and referent power are more personal and easier to develop. However, you can build all six sources of power (though using coercive power should be avoided!).

And if you sometimes find yourself without power, learn how to influence without authority.

Colin Bates

Colin Bates

I'm at my best when helping people to learn, grow and succeed. This might be facilitating a training program, coaching a colleague, or sharing advice with my kids. I'm also an introvert by nature, and love to read, reflect and write. Hence this blog!