Request a demo
Back to Blog

Using legitimate power? The responsibility behind your role

November 1, 2021 - 20 min read

leader-collaborating-with-team-members-legitimate-power-1

Jump to section

What is legitimate power?

What you should know about legitimate power

3 examples of legitimate power

Advantages of legitimate power

Disadvantages of legitimate power

4 tips to rock a legitimate power position

Use your legitimate power for good

Have you ever wondered why the president is allowed to live in the White House? Or why does your manager have the right to assign tasks to you?

These are both examples of legitimate power. In both instances, their power comes from the position they hold.

Along with the other types of power, it’s important for leaders to understand what legitimate power is. Only with a true understanding of this formal power can leaders use their power as a positive force in the workplace.

Let’s take a deeper look at what legitimate power is and how you can succeed in a legitimate power position.

What is legitimate power?

In any efficient system, there are different levels of power. This creates a sense of order and adds structure to the working environment.

Legitimate power is based on a person holding a particular position of authority within an organization. This gives them power over others and lets them make decisions within the broader system.

manager-helping-his-colleague-legitimate-power

Other different forms of power that are positional include reward power and coercive power.

Assigning legitimate power ensures that bigger responsibilities are taken care of. Those in lower positions can then confidently focus on their own tasks.

Those in positions of legitimate power often take on a “parental” role within an organization. They are responsible for decision-making and executing plans that push the business forward.

However, the responsibility that comes with legitimate power is great, and has the potential for both good and bad. Legitimate power is one thing. But legitimate power management is another.

It's important for effective leaders to use their legitimate power in conjunction with personal types of power.

Expert power, informational power, charismatic power, and referent power are all effective forms of personal power.

What you should know about legitimate power

Being in a position of power requires a high level of responsibility and leadership qualities.

While the concept of being powerful might initially seem appealing, it’s not always the case. People don’t often think of the finer details that come along with having so much control.

Here are four things to keep in mind when it comes to possessing legitimate power.

1. It is not for personal privilege

When power is chased purely for personal gain, the person chasing it can easily get lost in selfish whims and desires. People in positions of authority might lose sight of the greater good. Instead, they end up placing their focus on egotistical pursuits.

Legitimate power is a privilege. But it should never be used as a weapon for pushing oneself up at others’ expense.

2. Legitimate power alone doesn’t make you a good leader

Just because someone has power and authority does not necessarily mean they are a good leader at heart. A good leader aims to empower those around them and pursue progress for all.

good-leader-teaching-his-colleagues-legitimate-power

There are plenty of people with legitimate power in this world who neglect true leadership qualities. Instead, they embrace abuse or exploitation.

3. It can easily be lost

It can be easy to let power go to your head. But once that happens, you may start to take it for granted.

Many people in positions of legitimate power forget that they may lose it all if they cannot cope under the weight of responsibility.

If those in positions of authority cannot maintain a level head, everything they have worked to achieve may be lost.

Power is a fickle thing. As easily as it's awarded, it’s taken away. The ramifications of losing power are also far greater.

4. You still need to listen to others

The toxic leadership trait of arrogance sometimes accompanies power. If you find yourself in a position of legitimate power management, it will require some effort to remain open to other people’s opinions and wishes.

A leader who does not listen to others will only be resented over time.

Being a good leader takes great communication skills. Good leaders are always willing to share the table and hear others out. They know how to truly hear what other people are saying and make them feel that they’ve been heard.

3 examples of legitimate power

People in positions of legitimate power are all around us. In fact, you might even be one of them.

But what is legitimate power meant to look like?

The term may sound intimidating. But legitimate power is really just a description of any person with officiated authority in the workplace.

Even managerial roles on the smaller side can be considered positions of power. The key elements here are power, authority, and influence over others.

Here are three legitimate power examples to help you gain a better understanding of what the position means.

1. Manager

A manager is the perfect legitimate power example.

manager-writing-in-diary-at-office-desk-legitimate-power

Typically in charge of a large group of employees, managers make sure everything runs smoothly. They ensure all problems are dealt with and solutions are found and actioned.

2. Parent

Although it is not a corporate title, parents have legitimate power. Parents have authority over their children because of their title: parent.

Parents hold as much power as is legally possible over their child. They have unquestionable authority. Just think of the classic “Because I said so” response.

Because of their role in a young child’s life, parents have virtually full control over their child’s life. They have the power to give orders and to choose where their children go to school. They even control their children’s freedom of movement, for example by grounding them.

3. Teacher

Teaching might not be the first profession that comes to mind when you think of power. But in reality, teachers play a significant role of authority and influence in society.

In fact, imparting valuable knowledge to younger generations requires a great deal of responsibility and strength.

Advantages of legitimate power

Despite its high level of responsibility, there are many perks to being in a position of legitimate power.

When it comes to legitimate power management, you can choose to utilize the power in your possession to create positive change. This helps your work environment to flourish.

Here are some of the highlights and advantages of legitimate power in the workplace, as well as how you can use legitimate power to your benefit and the benefit of others.

1. Allows you to clearly see the hierarchy within a company

When you’re within the top half of a workplace hierarchy, you can see it more clearly. People who sit at the lower portion of the workplace hierarchy have much less control over it. This is often the reason behind their exploitation.

two-employees-showing-clear-company-hierarchy-legitimate-power

People who hold a high position of power are much more likely to possess a sharper comprehension of the system they are a part of.

2. Remains widely accepted

In most work environments, it is considered normal for direct reports to treat authoritative figures with unquestionable respect. This helps to maintain order.

But it also means that those with legitimate power very rarely have to worry about their orders not being followed.  

3. Gives you the ability to influence others

People with legitimate power shouldn’t use social influence tactics for selfish pursuits. But this status does allow some room for enjoyment.

Legitimate power can give you the opportunity to flex your influence.

For example, you can help someone in need or create necessary changes within your work environment. You have the ability to achieve professional goals that are beneficial to you and your team.

4. Allows you to get things done quickly and effectively

Your position of power can be utilized as a tool for overseeing difficult tasks with ease and efficiency.

Those in other positions may not have access to the resources or the social capital that you do. This provides you with an opportunity to generate fast, effective progress.

Disadvantages of legitimate power

Having power over others is not always easy. In fact, there are negative effects that come with maintaining a position of legitimate power management.

So what are the downsides to this kind of responsibility?

Anyone in a position of authority should be aware that these difficulties can sometimes accompany it.

1. Doesn’t prompt loyalty and respect

Not everyone who has power uses it well. This is why so many people have formed an instinctive sense of resentment or mistrust toward authoritative figures.

manager-having-discussion-with-colleague-legitimate-power

If you are in a position of power, even your best efforts to display integrity might be met with contempt, making cooperation difficult.

2. Overuse can cause dissatisfaction and frustration

Nobody likes a dictator. But it can be hard to refrain from overexerting your legitimate power in moments of weakness.

Unfortunately, those who work for or beneath you are unlikely to cut you much slack.

It’s the role of authoritative figures to use their power. But overuse will only put a strain on relationships with your direct reports.

3. Can sometimes lead to ineffectiveness

There are many ways for legitimate power to be misused. One of them occurs when an inexperienced or under-qualified person accepts the position.

An under-skilled manager or boss is likely to make ineffective decisions. This causes disruption and delay instead of progress.

4. Can be easily abused

Many people who have power do not truly understand how or when to use it for good.

Unfortunately, abuse of power is difficult to resist and easy to perpetuate. Anyone who pursues a healthy relationship with legitimate power should be prepared to do battle with their conscience.

4 tips to rock a legitimate power position

There may be a fair amount of responsibility that comes alongside legitimate power. But that does not mean that there aren’t ways to use it productively.

Everyone has the potential to be a great leader. With these four tips, anyone can rock a legitimate power position and pursue their future with integrity.

1. Understand your position

Maintaining a position of power requires an in-depth understanding of what your role is and why you are in that role.

The best leaders are people who form connections with their colleagues. They never assume they know everything about their position.

If you want to be a good leader, treat your power and those who report to you with care and empathy.  

2. Use other types of power

There is more than one type of power in this world. You will need to incorporate several of them if you are going to lead a successful career.

Legitimate power management requires the power of communication, collaboration and teamwork.

The combination of all these attributes will help you gain respect and perform your duties with more efficiency.

3. Connect with your peers

Because of the negative associations that people often have with authoritative figures, those with power need to make a concerted effort to connect with their peers.

leader-bonding-with-team-legitimate-power

Without making a genuine effort to bond with the people you work with, being liked and admired will not come easy. Being approachable and open-minded will help you be a better leader.

4. Use resources for team goals

Each team member will want to see that you are using resources for the benefit of everyone. Not just yourself.

People will always watch to make sure that you’re not exploiting your power. But you can omit unwanted backlash by using resources fairly and with the future of everyone in mind.

If you strive toward common goals in this way, your team will see this, respect you, and understand why you are in a position of authority.

Use your legitimate power for good

It may seem daunting to know how to exercise power and influence in a healthy way. However, the recipe for success is simple. Use your leadership power to help your team grow and succeed.

Keep in mind that an effective leadership style shouldn’t depend solely on legitimate power. Instead, a leader uses it in combination with other styles in a constructive and progressive way.

For some, using legitimate power will come with some trial and error. But anyone can learn how to become a respected and successful leader. It takes time, experience, and some professional guidance.

If you find approaching powerful positions stressful, consider investing in expert coaching.

Book a session with one of BetterUp’s expert coaches. They can help you unlock your personal and professional potential.

inclusive-leadership-report-cta

Published November 1, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

Read Next

Leadership & Management
18 min read | June 1, 2021

Power versus influence: How to build a legacy of leadership

Learn the difference between power and influence, what their sources are, when to use one or the other, and how mastering both can help you become a better leader. Read More
Professional Development
14 min read | August 24, 2022

The 5 types of power effective leaders use

Discover the five types of power and learn when to use each type. Plus, read about how you can use the different types of power to be an effective leader. Read More
Leadership & Management
20 min read | October 5, 2021

What is power and how does it affect workplace dynamics?

Power isn't always obvious. Learn more about what power is, the theories and types of power, and how to use power effectively at work. Read More
Leadership & Management
19 min read | October 18, 2021

Power versus authority, why the difference matters

Power vs. authority — which is more effective in a workplace scenario? Learn the difference between power and authority and how to become a better leader. Read More
Leadership & Management
15 min read | November 15, 2021

What is referent power? Your guide as a leader

What is referent power, and why is it so influential? Learn how leaders use their influence on others in our guide to referent leadership in the workplace. Read More
Professional Development
12 min read | January 17, 2022

How to use power (of your position and your person) in the workplace

Learn what positional power means, how it differs from personal power, and why personal power is as important as positional power to further your career. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.