Referent Power: What It Is and How To Use It

CoachHub · 24 October 2022 · 5 min read

The essence of power is the ability to get others to act. But how does it come about? Is it earned? Given? Taken? Power dynamics have been studied for centuries. The push and pull between who wields it and who is beholden to it comes into play anytime two people interact. In the workplace, it’s as benign as where to go for lunch and as consequential as where to invest for the future. Understanding the root of power is the hallmark of a good business leader. Referent power is the hallmark of a great one.

The 5 sources of personal and positional power

In the 1950s, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven came up with a framework that categorizes power as rooted in legitimacy, expertise, coercion, rewards and influence. A few years later, Raven added a sixth: information power.

  • Legitimate power is based on one’s role in the organization. It can be transient in that it depends entirely on the hierarchical relationship a person has in relation to others. 
  • Expert Power is self-explanatory. People gain power from expertise because others acknowledge their skills and experience. The more valued their expertise is, the more power they have. Expertise adds a sense of credibility to the dynamic.
  • Coercive power is fear-based, with threats (veiled and otherwise) and intimidation used to influence behavior. 
  • Reward power is just what it sounds like. It rests in one’s ability to provide raises, bonuses and benefits based on job performance. Its effectiveness depends on how good people are at discerning the value of those rewards to others.
  • Referent power centers on one’s ability to influence others using interpersonal skills that inspire confidence, trust and respect. This type of power is bestowed upon leaders by those who look up to them.
  • Information power is access to information one may choose to share or withhold to influence people, situations and outcomes. 
referent power

Which type of power is best?

Referent and expertise-based power are considered the most stable because they are not subject to the whims of others. They are specific to the person—who they are and how people feel about them. In contrast to such personal power, legitimate, reward and coercive power rely on a position conferred by someone else. A manager can be demoted. A reward can be ill-chosen in the eyes of the recipient. The least effective way to deploy power is through coercion because of the ill will it tends to cause.

All five forms of power have their place. Even much-maligned coercive power may be necessary when the goal is to fix dangerous or undesirable behavior fast. Leaders should seek to understand all of them and the context in which to deploy them for maximum impact. In this blog, however, we’ll take a deeper look at referent power. Many consider it to be the most lasting, resilient and effective over time.

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Referent power is leadership based on followership

How good are you at inspiring and influencing others? At getting people to trust you? At convincing people your way is the right way forward? The referent power definition centers on the desire of others to refer power to someone else. It’s generally conferred on those who are likeable, credible and respected. People from all walks of life lead through referent power. There are people in every company, at all levels of the organization, who wield it with aplomb. Whether through nature or nurture, they possess powers of persuasion, charisma or simply quiet fortitude that others find hard to resist.

Examples of referent power

Some say referent power is the difference between a being a competent manager and powerful leader. As Apple cofounder Steve Jobs put it, “Management is about persuading people to do things they don’t want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.” Jobs’ ability to inspire was legendary. Like him, the people who worked for Apple had a desire “to put a ding in the universe.” He was a tough taskmaster with a mercurial nature who was not above coercion, but people followed behind him, stood beside him and put few before him due to his passion for elegant innovation and his ability to unleash theirs.

People could do well to emulate the referent power example set by Yvon Chouinard, too. As a young mountain climber, he sold handmade gear to support his obsession. He went on to found the outdoor outfitter Patagonia, attracting like-minded people who grew it into a multibillion-dollar global brand that donated 1% of its sales to support environmental causes. In keeping with the company’s purpose statement: “We’re in business to save our home planet,” Chouinard recently gave the company to a trust and nonprofit that will use its substantial profits to fight the climate crisis and defend nature. “If we have any hope of a thriving planet—much less a thriving business—50 years from now, it’s going to take all of us doing what we can with the resources we have,” Chouinard said in an open letter. If inspiring others to follow your passion (not to mention their own) is referent power, Chouinard has it in spades.

How to develop referent power in leaders through coaching

Referent power can be thought of as one of the “soft skills” that enable people to connect, collaborate, inspire and lead others successfully in the workplace. Like Jobs, one can use referent power to push innovation forward. Like Chouinard, one can use it to influence outcomes for the benefit of others. For those not born with it, it’s good to know that the ability to use referent power in leadership roles is something one can learn with the help of mentors and professional coaches. While 77% of top managers report soft skills as their biggest weakness, 85% who receive coaching perform better than their peers in deploying such skills.

CoachHub leadership coaches are well-versed in the sources of power and how to deploy them. They help leaders understand the nuances of each type and the context in which they are most effective. They provide a safe space for conversation and experimentation as leaders explore the boundaries of referent power. They provide examples based on their experience that illuminate opportunities those new to using referent power might not explore otherwise. And they help leaders understand its pitfalls, such as blind devotion that keeps people from raising important questions or concerns.

Explore our website to learn more about developing and using referent power in leadership roles effectively.

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