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The 5 types of power effective leaders use

August 24, 2022 - 14 min read

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What is power?

Understanding the bases of power

What are the 5 types of power?

What types of power do effective leaders use the most?

How to use the 5 types of power

We’ve all seen leaders who let power go to their heads. They rule with an iron fist, believing their position gives them the authority to do so.

These leaders might succeed in imposing their will on their employees in the short term. But eventually, this management style leads to lower employee engagement, which is bad for business.

A great leader understands the different types of power and knows how to use them in combination with influence tactics. They know this is the best way to achieve results.

But what is power, really?

We’re going to answer that, as well as explain the five different types of power. We’ll also discuss how you can use them to become a more effective leader.

What is power?

Put simply, the definition of power is: having the capacity or ability to act in certain ways or impose your will on others.

But in a work context, people interpret the concept of power in different ways.

Some people see power as something they receive from an external source. This could be an assigned title or position that gives someone control and authority over others.

Other people believe power is an innate quality that can be cultivated internally and that manifests externally. In this sense, a person’s personal power grows as they develop.

True power is a combination of both internal and external power. This means that anyone can access a certain amount of power, regardless of their position in the hierarchy.

graphic-showing-types-of-power

Power vs. influence

Powerful leaders have a great capacity to influence others. Their power is based on a combination of their innate leadership qualities and the way others perceive them.

However, having power does not necessarily equate to having influence. The most powerful leaders support and uplift their team members instead of dominating and controlling them.

Also known as servant leaders, those who put the needs and development of their employees first have the greatest influence.

Power and leadership

The most powerful leaders have clarity and self-discipline. This allows them to lead by example.

By modeling disciplined behaviors, they encourage and inspire their team members to do the same. And when employees are self-disciplined, they require less micro-management. This, in turn, increases the leader’s power, creating a virtuous cycle of trust and self-leadership.

Insightfulness is another key aspect of a leader’s power. An insightful leader has the capacity to see the bigger picture and communicate that vision. Their insights give them greater power and influence over their team members.

The greater the impact a leader can have, the more they will be perceived as powerful by their employees. Using your creativity to find solutions, make decisions, and set organizational goals can increase your perceived power among your employees.

Confident leaders also have more power and influence over their subordinates. You can cultivate confidence by acting in line with your values and defending your positions.

Understanding the bases of power

French and Raven, researchers at the University of Michigan, identified five bases — or sources — of social power in 1959:

  1. Legitimate
  2. Reward
  3. Expert
  4. Referent
  5. Coercive

Before diving into the different bases of power, it’s important to understand that they are not all equally effective.

Some types of power may oblige your employees to comply with your demands, but they will fail to win employees’ support. Nonetheless, these types of power can sometimes be useful in situations that require disciplining an employee.

Other types of power are more influential. They help you gain the support and commitment of your employees, leading to better outcomes for your organization.

By understanding the different types of power, you will know which ones are most likely to give positive results. You will also know which power bases you should avoid relying on too heavily.

A great leader knows how to draw on different types of power depending on the situation at hand. So let’s take a look at each power base in more detail.

What are the five types of power?

A study by Gallup found that managers have greater influence over employee well-being and burnout than working hours.

With 76% of employees burning out at some point, this means that as a leader, it’s essential to use your power wisely. Otherwise, you will drive employee disengagement and make your team less productive and more likely to quit. Not to mention, contribute to burnout. 

pie-graph-employee-burnout-types-of-power

(Image source)

To be a more effective leader, you must understand the five types of power, how effective each one is, and when it’s appropriate to use them.

Let’s take a look at the different types of power:

1. Legitimate power

This is a type of formal power that you receive when you occupy a certain position in your organization.

Depending on the position, it gives you authority within the company. It also lasts as long as you remain in that role.

This type of power is recognized by subordinates. For this reason, it works well in hierarchical organizations such as the military.

Legitimate power is obtained through demonstrating you have the skills required for the role. Because this type of power is given, it can also be taken away. Effective leaders don’t depend solely on legitimate power. Instead, they use it in combination with others.

2. Reward power

Reward power means having the capacity to offer rewards or benefits in exchange for carrying out a task or achieving a result.

Rewards usually come in the form of raises, benefits, promotions, or public praise. However, this type of power is not always as effective as some leaders think.

It should be relevant and tangible enough to motivate your employees. It should also be something that’s within your power to give and doesn’t depend on your superiors.

This type of power may help achieve results, but it doesn’t necessarily ensure the support or commitment of your employees.

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3. Expert power

Expert power comes from having both deep technical knowledge and extensive experience in your field of expertise.

When you’re the expert in your field, people in your company naturally come to you to benefit from your knowledge. Your expertise gives you credibility, and people trust and respect your opinions.

Expert power gives you the ability to influence co-workers across all levels of the organization. This enables you to steer the growth and development of both individual colleagues and the company as a whole.

However, a true expert knows they must continue developing their knowledge and skills to maintain credibility.

4. Referent power

According to Nicole Lipkin, author of “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night,” this is the type of power that gives a leader the greatest influence.

Leaders get referent power through qualities that inspire trust and respect in their colleagues. These include honesty and integrity.

A person who holds referent power has excellent interpersonal skills and exudes confidence. This makes them natural leaders. They listen to their colleagues and offer help and support.

This type of power is internal rather than external. It is a personal power that cannot be handed to you by someone else. As your referent power grows, so too will your capacity to influence your colleagues.

5. Coercive power

Coercive power is one of the most commonly used in many workplaces, yet it is also the least effective.

In fact, Lipkin advises leaders never to use coercive power.

It involves using threats to force people to do your will. They might not agree with what they have to do, but they do it out of fear of repercussions such as losing their jobs.

For example, in many companies, leaders demand constant innovation and new ideas from their employees. Those who don’t measure up face being replaced by someone else.

Although it may work in the short-term, coercive power creates unhappy, disengaged employees and is best avoided. It can also negatively affect employee retention efforts.

diagram-seven-types-of power

What types of power do effective leaders use the most?

Effective leaders know how to draw on the different types of power in different situations. This is usually a skill that develops with experience.

Bear in mind that certain types of power are only effective in situations that require immediate action or resolution.

In the case of employee misconduct, you might use coercion to persuade your employee to stop their inappropriate behavior. Use your discretion to determine whether this is the right course of action.

For the most part, you will rely on softer types of power to encourage employee commitment to organizational goals and plans. These include legitimate, referent, and expert power.

effectiveness-of-types-of-power

How to use the 5 types of power

It’s important to understand each type of power before looking to apply it. Once you have a good grasp of each one, you can consider ways to apply them at work.

  • Understand your goals: It’s much easier to create a plan when you know what the end goal is. The same can be said for leadership styles and types of power. Before delegating or motivating your team, understand what you want to achieve in doing so.
  • Understand your team: It’s also important to know who you are speaking to and what they value. You can get to know your team better with async check-ins, 1:1 meetings, casual coffee chats, or more structured employee engagement surveys. By familiarizing yourself with your team, you will have a better idea of which power types to use and when.
  • Consider your leadership style: Are you a democratic leader who likes to hear from each individual before making a decision? Or do you take a more top-down approach? Different leadership styles feed into and support various types of power, so try to think of them as a cohesive partnership for great leadership.
  • Reflect and revise your approach: You might have great success the first time you apply a new type of power. But if it falls flat and does not resonate with your team (or your own values), then try another approach. Remaining flexible and being open to feedback will make the process easier.

Leverage the types of power wisely

The different types of power can give you greater influence, boost employee engagement, and achieve better results for your organization.

Knowing how to use your power is a skill that usually comes with time and experience.

However, you can accelerate the process and become a more influential leader in less time with the support of a coach.

Book a session with one of BetterUp’s expert coaches and start your coaching journey today.

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Published August 24, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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