Forms of Power In A Nutshell

When most people are asked to define power, they think about the power a leader possesses as a function of their responsibility for subordinates. Others may think that power comes from the title or position this individual holds. 

Understanding forms of power

Various forms of power describe how one person may exert power over another in both personal and professional contexts.

While these definitions are certainly valid in some instances, they remain a superficial way to define power which, in truth, is far more nuanced.

In a landmark 1959 study by social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven, the pair advocated that power could be separated into five separate and distinct forms. A sixth form was later added in 1965.

French and Raven equated power with social influence, describing it as “a change in the belief, attitude, or behavior of a person (the target of influence) which results from the action of another person (an influencing agent)”.

Since the 1950s, studies into social communication and power have resulted in the development of various theories.

One of these is that leadership and power are closely linked and that the various forms of power affect one’s leadership and success in the workplace.

The six forms of power 

According to French and Raven, the six forms of power include:


This is power derived from elected, selected, or appointed positions of authority.

Those with legitimate power maintain authority for as long as they remain in the position.

Since this type of power is recognized by subordinates, it is effective in hierarchical organizations and also in the military.


Where rewards such as raises, benefits, promotions, or praise are offered in exchange for performing a task or achieving a result.

Reward power can be effective but does not necessarily guarantee subordinates’ sustained support or commitment. 


Those with expert power possess detailed knowledge or expertise in a particular field.

They tend to attract people who want to benefit from their knowledge and their expertise engenders credibility and trust.


This tends to be associated with power enjoyed by celebrities and other public figures who have large followings.

These individuals can exert a sustained influence over others – sometimes even after death.

In the workplace, referent power is one of the most valuable because it is built on relationships characterized by admiration and respect.


Where threats are made to make someone take a desired course of action.

In the workplace, coercive threats are often rooted in fear and include the prospect of demotion, transfer, or termination.


A short-term form of power derived from controlling information others need to achieve something.

Project managers who possess the specific details of a project hold power momentarily, but this is relinquished once they share the details with the team.

For this reason, informational power does not build credibility or influence. 

Implications for the six forms of power

Each of the six forms of power has distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Therefore, in the workplace, it is important for leaders to be aware of these and how they can impact culture and employee motivation.

Leaders can also use French and Raven’s work to identify a form they subconsciously default to which is not in their best interests. 

It is also worth noting that power must be exerted wisely, with a recent Gallup study finding that managers have more influence over employee well-being and burnout than the number of working hours.

Key takeaways:

  • Various forms of power describe how one person may exert power over another in both personal and professional contexts.
  • According to a landmark study by French and Raven in 1959, there are six forms of power: legitimate, reward, expert, referent, coercive, and informational.
  • Each of the six forms of power has distinct advantages and disadvantages and may be useful in different workplace situations. Managers need to be aware of how they exert power over others because some forms have potential downsides.

Main Free Guides:

Types Of Leadership

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Adaptive Leadership

Adaptive leadership is a model used by leaders to help individuals adapt to complex or rapidly changing environments. Adaptive leadership is defined by three core components (precious or expendable, experimentation and smart risks, disciplined assessment). Growth occurs when an organization discards ineffective ways of operating. Then, active leaders implement new initiatives and monitor their impact.

Delegative Leadership

Developed by business consultants Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the 1960s, delegative leadership is a leadership style where authority figures empower subordinates to exercise autonomy. For this reason, it is also called laissez-faire leadership. In some cases, this type of leadership can lead to increases in work quality and decision-making. In a few other cases, this type of leadership needs to be balanced out to prevent a lack of direction and cohesiveness of the team.

Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is based on the premise that leadership responsibilities and accountability are shared by those with the relevant skills or expertise so that the shared responsibility and accountability of multiple individuals within a workplace, bulds up as a fluid and emergent property (not controlled or held by one individual). Distributed leadership is based on eight hallmarks, or principles: shared responsibility, shared power, synergy, leadership capacity, organizational learning, equitable and ethical climate, democratic and investigative culture, and macro-community engagement.


Micromanagement is about tightly controlling or observing employees’ work. Although in some cases, this management style might be understood, especially for small-scale projects, generally speaking, micromanagement has a negative connotation mainly because it shows a lack of trust and freedom in the workplace, which leads to adverse outcomes.
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