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What is referent power? Your guide as a leader

November 15, 2021 - 15 min read


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What is referent power?

Why is referent power so important?

How to use referent power

Obtaining referent power

2 examples of referent power

What is referent power to you?

There are many types of power that leaders can have. A great leader knows when to use which type of power in which situation. From reward power to legitimate power, each power is useful in its own way.

But there is one form of power that gives leaders the most influence.

And that’s referent power.

But what is referent power in leadership? And why is referent power so influential?

Let’s take a look at why understanding referent power, and using it correctly in the workplace, is so important.

What is referent power?

So, what is referent power exactly? And more specifically, what is referent power in leadership?

The simplest referent power definition is a type of power that stems from a leader’s ability to inspire and influence others. This authority comes from the extent to which people admire, respect, and like a specific leader.`


Referent power is one of several different kinds of power. Other forms of power include expert power, coercive power, reward power, and legitimate power. These theories of power were originally described by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959.

The duo theorized that leadership created by referent power would attract and inspire people. With the right interpersonal skills and personal qualities, this leadership power could convert people into loyal followers.

Referent power creates strong connections between leaders and their followers. Followers may try to gain their leaders’ approval by imitating the way leaders think, behave, and express themselves. They see their leader as a kind of role model.


Why is referent power so important?

Referent power has the ability to unite team members and promote productivity. It can inspire employees to work toward a common goal.

Here’s more on why referent power is crucial in every work environment.

1. Creates more positive, trusting relationships

Referent leaders are encouraging and supportive. They are always ready to provide innovative solutions to challenges. This reduces employees’ anxiety and stress points. It also alleviates uncertainty around tasks, which minimizes delays and improves productivity.

Referent leaders create positive and trusting relationships. They ensure that their peers are never afraid to approach them with questions or issues.

2. Promotes collaboration

Employees who feel free to share their ideas can contribute to the success of business projects. Democratic leaders let their employees know that they are welcome to express their ideas and opinions. And that they will be heard and acknowledged.


Healthy collaboration minimizes bureaucratic processes within a company. It also accelerates workflows between departments and teams.

This shows employees that their work is about achieving positive results. Rather than about endless paperwork and authoritative protocols.

3. Boosts morale and greater job satisfaction

Respected leaders inspire employees to dedicate themselves wholly to their jobs and responsibilities. They function as practical and positive models for their employees. This is done by showing the employees clear examples of how roles should be filled within an organization.

Employees who have clear ideas of what is expected of them and are recognized for their input have better morale. They will be more satisfied with their positions within a company.

4. Improves employee retention

Employees who are committed and motivated by their leaders are far less likely to leave their jobs. This effect has the power to reduce staff turnover and the associated costs. All while helping a company retain its talent in the long term.

5. Inspires employees to be more productive and engaged

Employees who see their leaders hard at work and taking on their fair share of company responsibilities are likely to follow suit.

Referent leaders inspire their staff to remain productive and engaged at work. They do this by leading by example and exercising fair judgment at all times.

How to use referent power

As with any type of power, you should consider how you can use referent power most effectively. Here's how to use referent power to motivate, inspire, and support your staff.

1. Be honest

Honesty and integrity are some of the most powerful ways to use and foster referent power in the workplace.

If you say that you’ll do something for your team, see to it as soon as possible. This will build trust and gain their respect as an ethical leader.

2. Listen and be open to new ideas

Having an open mind and listening to new, creative ideas is an excellent way to build strong referent power.

Listening to what your employees are telling you is a crucial communication skill all leaders should have. It will better equip you to understand the issues your staff are dealing with.

When a team member approaches you to talk, avoid multitasking. Listen attentively to them while making eye contact. Use verbal and non-verbal cues like nods, smiles, and reinforcing statements.

Let them know that you are listening and that they have your full attention. Use different types of listening to avoid misunderstandings and become an active listener.

3. Invest in your team

An effective leader is willing to invest in their team and bear responsibility for their mistakes.

You should be ready to stand up for your team in situations of conflict. Deal with issues that arise with a strategic, planned approach that benefits all parties involved.


Investing in your team could mean providing them with the tools they need to work productively. Or it could be providing them with new learning experiences like on-the-job training and microlearning opportunities.

You should invest your time, attention, and empathy into your team to ensure they find you approachable. Even on difficult topics.

4. Recognize good work

A study of over 200,000 people found that as many as 79% of employees quit their jobs due to a lack of appreciation and recognition from their employers.

You can prevent losing talented staff members by praising their achievements and progress. Compliment your employees in front of their teammates to make sure that they feel respected and valued in their positions.

5. Practice what you preach

Great leaders follow the same rules that their direct reports are expected to follow. For example, if your workplace has banned the use of social media platforms at work, don’t use them during work time either.

View yourself as equal to your employees. Lead by example rather than granting yourself special privileges.

Obtaining referent power

Why is referent power so influential?

It has a lot to do with how this form of power builds trusting bonds between employees, managers, and leaders.

You can build and solidify referent power using these key guidelines.

1. Mentor others

Mentoring others means using your expertise to guide your teams' efforts and give them the best possible chances of success.

You can build referent power by living up to the standards by which you expect your subordinates to work. Additionally, you can provide them with supportive guidance on how to do so.

Teach them about responsiveness, accuracy, and work ethic in a way that inspires them to do better.

2. Model the behavior you want to see

Fairness is the key to becoming a referent leader. If there are certain behaviors you want to see, it’s only fair that you model these behaviors yourself if you expect your staff to follow suit.

If you want to see your team more motivated, show motivation yourself. If you expect them to be timely, ensure that you arrive at the office on time every day.

These simple actions can easily win the respect of a team and encourage them to follow your positive example.

3. Delegate authority

A great way to build trust between yourself and your staff is to delegate authority.


This shows your team that you are confident in their abilities. It is also a clear sign that you trust their integrity and judgment. Plus, it gives them a valuable chance to prove themselves.

4. Be fair

Being a fair leader means being diplomatic, respectful, and willing to compromise. Even during times of conflict.

Ensure you hold your staff accountable for their actions. But you should always treat them equally and with consideration for the context.

2 examples of referent power

These two leaders are excellent examples of how to build and use referent power effectively:

Elon Musk

Although Elon Musk is one of the wealthiest people in the world, people across the globe don't look up to him only for his financial status. They admire him because of his innovative and pioneering approach to technological development.

Musk’s followers are proud to work with him and to associate with him. They share his visions for using technology for public benefit and cost-effective space travel.

His leadership style inspires and drives his team at Tesla to create ground-breaking new designs. These designs are actively changing the future of transportation, energy storage, and robotics.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama cemented herself as one of the most passionate and accomplished first ladies in US history. As a charismatic leader, her compassion, powerful public-speaking abilities, and genuine interest in social causes helped her achieve this status.


She won people’s respect and admiration by stepping outside of the traditional roles and stereotypes expected of a First Lady. She used her referent power to fight poverty, inequality, and obesity with widespread campaigns.

What is referent power to you?

What is referent power in leadership? Referent power is a unique type of personal power. It is built on respectful interpersonal relationships rather than manipulation or coercion.

Today’s organizations focus more on building relationships and collaborating across teams. As such, referent power is becoming an increasingly essential leadership tool. It can be used to facilitate growth and support ongoing productivity across all industries and sectors.

Contact BetterUp and learn more about cultivating referent leadership and other leadership skills for yourself and your teams. 

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Published November 15, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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