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.
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.
- 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.
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