The 6 Types of Power | executive coaching | Six and a Half Consulting
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The 6 Types of Power

6 types of power to use as a leader

The 6 Types of Power

Imagine a job you’ve had where your boss got things done in the office by utilizing a series of rewards and punishments.  Now, think of someone you’ve worked with who influenced others by being an expert in his field. Finally, envision a manager who inspired action because of her reputation. 

How did it feel when you worked with these different types of bosses and colleagues?  Did one type of behaviour elicit a better response from you than others?

The way that managers and colleagues behave with each other — and how effectively they can work with one another — depends on the sources of power they use.  Note that power does not necessarily need to come from a position of authority (just as a leader does not necessarily need to yield authority, see my blog here).

Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven studied the varying types of power in the 1950s.  Despite being more than half a century old,  their research still proves very valuable today, namely because it helps us understand why some people are skilled at influencing others by utilizing the “right” type of power in the right situation to get the most out of people. 

By understanding these different types of power, effective managers and leaders can learn to use the positive ones to leverage greatest impact, while avoiding the negative types ones that are frequently the standard go-to’s.

The 6 types of power

  • Legitimate — This comes from the belief that a person has the formal right to make demands, and to expect others to be compliant and obedient.
  • Reward —  This power is derived from one person’s ability to reward another for compliance.
  • Expert —  This type of power comes from a person’s mastery in a particular skill or knowledge.
  • Referent —  This power type is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness and right to others’ respect.
  • Coercive —  This power stems from understanding that if someone does not comply to the wishes and demands of the ordering person, consequences will ensue.
  • Informational — This type of power is derived from someone’s ability to limit or give access to relevant information.

French and Raven divide these types of power in two groups: positional and personal.


Positional Power Sources

Legitimate Power

Heads of states such as presidents and prime ministers, monarchs and even dictators all have legitimate power — the formal right to make demands.  Elections, social hierarchies, and cultural norms all reinforce the basis for legitimate power. 

This type of power is inherently unstable, however. When an election is lost, a monarch oversteps her bounds, or a dictator is overthrown, legitimate power is immediately lost because power was yielded not by the person in power, but by his title.

In addition, the scope of power is also limited to circumstances that people believe the person of power has the right to oversee.  If a police chief informs the city to stay away from a section of town that just suffered a shooting, people will likely listen.  If, however, she instructs people to about how they ought to pay their water and electric bills, people will understandably ignore her advice as it falls outside of her natural jurisdiction. 

Reward Power

People with this type of power often give raises, promotions, recognitions, and even compliments.

The problem with this type of power is that it usually is not as strong, or as unilateral, as it appears on the surface.  Bosses rarely have complete control over a salary increases and managers usually can’t give a promotion to an employee entirely on their own.  Even CEOs and C-suites typically require permission from their boards to make large decisions when it comes to salary increases or lay-offs.

The other limiting factor with rewards based power is that once the reward has been given, or the reward does not meet a subordinate’s perceived value, that power is gone.

Of course, there is one exception: thanks and praise.  These are free to give, and widely accepted when done with authenticity!

Coercive Power

This type of power also often presents problems and is often abused. More, it frequently causes severe dissatisfaction and often resentment. Threats and punishments are very common coercive tools, and typically employed by weak managers and people of authority who have underdeveloped skill sets.  This type of power is most frequently seen in people accused of being a bully.

Informational Power

Having control over information that other people want or need is a powerful position to be in. Knowing who will be fired, what the financial reports say, how the executive team will respond to a recent crisis, or why HR has been so distant lately are all examples of informational power.

In todays modern, technology economy, information is king.   And the power that is derived from being able to access and share information is huge.  But so is the ability to distort, conceal, or manipulate information (as an be seen in recent attacks on main stream media’s legitimacy and the rise of so-called fake news sites). Having access to information — and the choice to share it freely or manipulate its content — has proven to be a very powerful power weapon.


Personal Power Sources

Relying on positional forms of power alone often results in cold, technocratic, and oftentimes dictatorial power relationship. To effectively influence people on human terms, personal power sources must be employed.

Expert Power

Someone who uses their knowledge and skills to enable others and resolve situations yields a very powerful form of power, or influence, over others.

This power is not derived from coercive or authoritarian means, but ones of respect, trust, and admiration.  And when those power sources are harnessed, people are naturally motivated to follow this type of leadership.

Referent Power

Referent power comes from the relationships people have with one another, or with people identifying with another in some way.  Celebrities have referent power, which is why when they endorse a product, go to a restaurant, or live in a certain neighbourhood, considerable influence on other’s decision making processes is had. In the workplace, an employee with referent power often is well liked by his colleagues, which is repaid with a certain amount of influence. 

Some caution though. Referent power comes with a great deal of responsibility, and can easily be misused. Just because someone is well liked or has fame, does not mean that they are necessarily honest, trustworthy, or reliable.


Some questions to consider

Having a position of authority is the easiest way that people can yield power, but to truly influence people being an authority isn’t a requirement.

Recognizing the 6 different types of power — and how people use them — can help us avoid being influenced by those who rely on pure positional power, while helping us developing more impactful, personal power strategies for ourselves.

As you study these types of powers, here are some questions to think about:

1. How have you used each of these power types in your own life?

2. Have you used your power effectively?  And for the best outcomes?

3. What sources of power do others yield over you?

4. Are they effective?


For more information about power dynamics at your organization, email or Contact Us

Casey Miller

Casey A. Miller, Co-Founder of Six and a Half Consulting, is on a mission: to use his big heart and gift of truth telling to help organizations, communities, and relationships thrive.

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