Have you ever wondered why you are able to influence some people, yet not others at work? I often hear from frustrated leaders who ask what does it take to get co-workers or staff to comply?
Our ability to get others to follow with our requests is really based on their perceptions of what power we possess.
Research from many decades ago by social psychologists John French and Bertam Raven (in 1959) has shown that there are generally five forms of power that others can perceive us to have: reward, coercive, legitimate, expert and referent power. Legitimate, reward and coercive power are often considered to be the product of our positions in an organization, while expert and referent are considered to be personal sources of power.
If others perceive you to have legitimate power, it means they comply with your requests because they believe you have the formal authority or the right to make certain demands. If you are perceived to have reward power, others comply with your requests because they believe you have can administer perks, benefits, promotions or other desirable things of value. If you have coercive power, it means people comply with your requests because they believe you have the ability to administer punishments. Generally, research has shown that relying on these sources of power will not likely lead to commitment by others. And you have to continually reinforce the powers to be influential.
On the other hand, if you are perceived to have the more personal sources of power — expert or referent — then others are much more likely to heed your requests. If they perceive that you have expert power, they’ll comply with your requests because they believe you have valuable knowledge, experience or skills. If they think you have referent power, they’ll comply because they’ll identify with you, respect you and want to be like you. With both of these sources of power, others feel a greater source of commitment and you don’t have to keep trying to influence them.
It is important for leaders to be capable of using all five sources of power, but not to the same degree. Managers I have coached who are perceived as having referent and expert to the greatest degree seem to have the most satisfied and committed employees. But to be really effective, they also need to have some of the other sources of power as well. A leader who never gives rewards or punishments to employees when deserved will be less influential.
Here are some tips for wielding the five sources of power:
Reward power: Identify what your employees value and offer those rewards — for example, a day off or recognition for a job well done might be preferred to a gift card. Once you determine what rewards people value, offer them in a timely manner as promised. Don’t make incentives so overly complicated that people don’t know what they have to do to get them. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, and make sure to be fair and ethical.
Coercive power: You don’t want this to a large degree, but people need to know that you will take action when things are not done properly. Set clear expectations and consequences for performance. Administer warnings and reprimands in private rather than in public. Use punishments that are legitimate, fair and commensurate with the seriousness of the infraction.
Legitimate power: Make sure people understand your expectations for their job requirements and commitments. Ensure your requests are in line with your position and authority. Employees generally have an idea of what types of requests are appropriate for managers in certain fields. Requests outside of those boundaries frustrate employees and can make them feel used.
Expert power: Expertise alone is not enough. Demonstrate your expertise by making it visible to others, for example by offering technical assistance or job advice. Stay current and informed about your knowledge area.
Referent power: Perhaps the most difficult because it takes time to develop, you have to serve as a role model. Exert high levels of effort and performance on the job, make sacrifices for your employees, treat people with care and respect and be accessible.
Effective leaders engage in behaviors in order to be perceived to have all five sources of power, especially expert and referent. They also collect feedback from others to learn how they are being perceived and then adjust their behavior accordingly.
Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.