Power versus influence: How to build a legacy of leadership

June 1, 2021 - 18 min read

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Power vs. Influence: Deconstructing each concept

Why is it good to master both power and influence?

Sources of power

Methods of influence

To lead or not to lead: Where do power and influence collide?

Become a positive leader by balancing power and influence

You've reached a point in your career where leadership experience is important to you. But what comes next? Beyond determining what kind of leader you want to be, it's time to think about the concept of power versus influence.

For many, a position of leadership equates to authority over others. 

But there’s much more to leadership than authority and power. This type of one-dimensional leadership can generate short-term results. In the long run, it won’t help you earn the trust and respect from the people you lead. There are a variety of different management styles that leaders can explore and choose the one that fits them best. 

Over the long term, wielding influence that goes deeper than the surface matters. That is, if you want to build a high-performing and loyal team. 

This is where power and influence come into play. Both are integral behaviors in creating a legacy of leadership.

But ultimately, what is the difference between having power and having influence? Let’s explore how they differ and how you can learn to influence rather than rely on tactics of power alone.

Power vs. Influence: Deconstructing each concept

First, let’s break down what defines power versus what defines influence.

What is power? 

Power is the ability to impose your will or make others act in the way you want based on your authority.

If you hold a source of power over someone else, you can demand they act a certain way or commit specific actions.

They may not think you're right or believe in the same things you do. But, they'll perform their actions because they believe your source of power could result in consequences if they do not, or rewards if they do.

For example, let’s assume you have the power to decide who gets a raise and who gets let go. Your employees may listen to your requests because they want to earn more money or fear a layoff.

What is influence? 

Influence is the ability to change how someone else behaves or thinks based on persuasion instead of authority. 

Unlike power, influence doesn’t allow you to directly impact someone’s actions or behavior just by telling them to do something.

Instead, you can influence others into changing the way they behave, think, or act using your personal skills. These skills include skills of persuasion and inspiration.

Relationships will also have an impact on influence. When you have a positive relationship based on trust with your peers, your actions and behaviors will be more likely to influence them.

What is the difference between power and influence?

Both power and influence can help you change the actions and behaviors of your peers. However, they do so in significantly different ways.

Power uses force to convince someone to perform an action. When you influence someone, however, a person will typically not feel pressured or forced to do anything. . Influence is not about ruling with an iron fist, but more about guiding individuals during the decision-making process.  

Power can be costly to businesses when employees come to resent it, or feel they are acting against their beliefs solely because they ‘have to.’ 

On the other hand, influence can help improve employee retention in an organization. When people are positively influenced, they feel that they are acting in ways they believe are right..

Managing only with power often creates a one-way conversation between a leader and a subordinate. Managing through influence, however, opens up space for a two-way conversation between peers.

Why is it good to master both power and influence?

Power and influence can work together to strengthen your leadership in an organization.

In any leadership role, there will be times when you’ll need power and/or influence over others. And often, one method will work better than the other.

Let's look at an example. If something unexpected occurs you may not have time to provide enough influence to your team. In this case, having the power to direct them into action is beneficial.

On the other hand, when it comes to daily work, being an inclusive leader who influences them to try their best and give their all can have a lasting impact.

Building influence takes time and requires more effort than obtaining power, but research shows it’s worth the work.

Only 44% of HR professionals believe employees give a discretionary effort at work. Discretionary effort is the extra effort employees put in because they have the motivation to do so. Power on its own rarely motivates employees to put in this discretionary effort.

Plus, 71% of leaders place a high priority on increasing engagement in their employees. But employees who act a certain way out of pressure from power won’t necessarily engage with those actions.

When the performance of your team comes from power only, they aren’t self-driven to give more effort than necessary. They are only driven by an outside power.

Those actions come from an outside force, and they are performing these actions to respect the source of power at play.

On the other hand, your peers are more likely engage with their work when their actions come from them. When they have a say in how they can perform a task, they can start developing ownership of that task or project. This ownership can develop into more engagement.

They’ll see a reason to perform better, because they know they have some power to change things for the better.

Here are other ways in which you and your team can benefit from using influence instead of relying solely on power:

  • Influence is long-lasting and continues to have an effect even when there is no source of fear or power left.
  • You avoid creating homogenous teams by being aware that relying too heavily on power attracts like-minded people to you. Diverse teams will generate more diverse ideas and help improve the problem-solving power of your entire team.
  • You don’t have to fear losing power, which can increase your willingness to delegate. This can make your team more well-rounded and help you focus on high-level tasks that you do best.

Using power alone may work well in the short-term, when you need immediate action. Influence, however, tends to be a more positive and lasting motivator. Now we'll look at a few sources of power vs. methods of influence.

Sources of power

Let’s explore the five biggest sources of power you can wield as a leader.

Legitimate power

Legitimate power, or positional power, comes from a position of authority you hold in your organization.

Let's take a look at an example. You become a manager and acquire responsibilities, as well as decision-making authority. The power you hold depends on your position and what the company you work for believes is suitable for this position. This form of power is legitimate power.

In some cases, you'll even have the power to make your team do overtime, focus on one task over another, or perform tasks using a specific process. Additionally, you may have the power to promote, suspend, or even fire employees. Again, this is all legitimate power.

Power of coercion

The power of coercion involves using punishment to have people on your team agree with you. But don't confuse this with legitimate power when used by those who hold positions of authority. Just because a person is a leader or a manager doesn't mean all the power they leverage is legitimate. Likewise, don’t assume that all power leveraged by leaders is coercion. It’s often not that cut and dry. 

However, you do need some form of legitimate power to be able to use coercion. Otherwise, you won’t have the authority to exert the punishment you threatened.

For example, if you threaten to remove an employee from a lucrative project if they do not comply with your demands, that is coercion in action. 

Not being allowed to work on a lucrative project would punish the employee, but you would only be able to make this change if you have the legitimate authority to do so.

Power of reward

The power of reward is the opposite of coercion. It involves using a reward to convince others to accomplish something.

According to a study, the power of reward doesn’t just promote better functioning employees. It also leads to better outcomes for the company.

Unlike coercion, you don’t necessarily need legitimate power to reward others. It all depends on the type of reward you want to offer.

For example, if you offer a company trip if your team exceeds their KPIs, you'd need the authority to budget a trip like this.

But if you decided to use your own money to purchase prizes for good performance, you don't need a position of authority.

Referent power

Referent power comes from someone who wants your approval and who will therefore act according to your wishes. When someone wants your approval, you have power over them, even if you don’t have authority.

For example, if an employee sees you, their manager, as their hero, you would have a source of power over them because they would seek to impress you.

Even if you hold the same position and authority as them, this person could still see you as their hero and seek your approval. This is especially if you're more experienced than them.

Expert power

Expert power is when you're seen as an expert in your field. Thus, you hold a source of power that earns you respect from others.

Your track record and expertise give you the power and credibility to make decisions and enforce them.

For example, if you have 25 years of experience in your field, you likely hold power over a junior who is still learning about the job.

Methods of influence

Now that you know the different forms of power, let’s look at the four best tactics of influence to use to lead the people around you.

Persuasion

The art of rational persuasion allows you to use rational, logical arguments to explain your point of view.

Instead of telling someone to do something because you’re in charge and you said so, you can persuade them that this is the best course of action to take.

Collaboration

As an influence technique, you can provide support to your subordinates, so they have more reason to commit to a task.

When you collaborate with your team, they see a committed leader which ultimately gives them more reason to commit on their own.

Inspiration

Model the behavior you'd like to see from your team and explain how the outcome you want is linked to what the members of your team value.

Instead of telling your team to act a certain way, start acting this way yourself. Remind them that this behavior can help you all achieve a common goal.

Consultation

You can help members of your team become more motivated and committed to a common issue or task by asking for input or advice from them.

By asking to consult with members of your team, you show that you value their input, which gives them more reason to fully commit to their work.

To lead or not to lead: Where do power and influence collide?

Now that we dove deep into power vs. influence, what does influence leadership look like? What about power leadership? 

Let’s explore various situations in which you can use positive influence or power as an effective leader.

What is influence leadership?

Influence leadership is having an impact on the beliefs and actions of the people you are leading.

You notice how the people you lead become motivated and committed, and you use what you know to generate positive results. 

Influence leadership in management is based on two-way trust with the people you lead. 59% of leaders consider employee feedback a high priority, and building this trust can help make way for this feedback.

As an influential leader, this means you are not only open to receiving constructive feedback, but actively encourage it. You understand that feedback is necessary to improve the wellness of the entire team and help you improve as a leader.

You also need to engage with your people and involve them in your decision-making instead of making your decisions in a bubble.

What is power leadership?

Power leadership uses sources of power instead of influence to motivate others to act.

With power leadership, you can influence how others act, but it won’t necessarily change what people believe and how committed they are.

Power leadership also tends to centralize power and decision-making to one person. 

Instead of working to develop trust in your team and get your team to trust you, you focus on finding external ways to drive performance.

If you rely solely on power leadership, you don’t necessarily try to get feedback from your team. Although, it doesn’t mean you aren’t willing to listen when it comes your way.

How leadership is made using power and how to use influence instead

Scenario 1: extra work needs to be done over the weekend

Power: Using coercive and legitimate power, you choose three people and tell them they need to come in, or they will be written up.

Influence: You decide to lead by example and volunteer to come in on the weekend yourself. You can also use persuasion to explain why coming in during the weekend will benefit the project and make work more pleasant for the team.

Scenario 2: Morale is low during a particularly difficult project, and productivity is suffering

Power: You decide to host a pizza party to boost morale, but only if your team reaches their milestone before the end of the day.

Influence: Provide support to your team to boost morale, not through unrelated gifts, but by getting your hands dirty in the project. Give advice, show how you'd do it, and ask them what they think should be done next. Drive performance by helping to develop your team.

Scenario 3: Someone in your team hasn’t been performing as well in the past few weeks

Power: You meet with them one-on-one and tell them that they need to step it up, otherwise you’ll have to write them up.

Influence: Instead of reprimanding them, you ask how you can support them right now. Let them know that they are important to the team and everyone relies on them to succeed.

Become a positive leader by balancing power and influence

Power is the ability to impose your will on others, whereas influence is the ability to deeply affect behaviors and beliefs.

As a leader, you’ll need to use your power once in a while to steer the ship. But when you use influence to lead, you’ll slowly build deeper trust and loyalty with your team.

When you lose a position of power, you lose the power that came with it, but not the influence you generated.

Build your leadership skills with personalized coaching using BetterUp and become an inspiring, daring leader for your team

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Published June 1, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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