Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

Using Your 5 Personal Power Bases to Get Ahead

There are different sources of power and influence. Learn to use them wisely.

Decades ago, psychologists John French and Bert Raven suggested that there were 5 important power bases that can be used in the workplace or elsewhere to influence others. Although designed to better understand the power of leaders, knowing how to use these power bases, at work or in everyday life, can help you be more influential and successful.

1. Expert Power. This is the most valuable power base. If you have some particular skill or expertise that others value, then you will have power over them if they need/want what you possess. This is the power that professionals have over us – doctors, lawyers, your company’s IT guy. We do what they say because we believe they possess some skill or competence

Learning how to use this power base is key. Competence is a powerful force for success. Establish your expertise – your expert power base – make it known, but don’t boast about it. Expertise and humility are a powerful combination. 

2. Reward Power. This is the power to give positive things to others – money, praise, perks, and other things that others need or want. Money is powerful because it is so valued by others. With wealth comes reward power.

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We often, however, overlook the power of social reinforcement – giving a compliment, saying ‘thank you,’ a smile and a nod – can be a very powerful form of influence. Get in the habit of noticing when those around you behave positively, and give them social reinforcement. You will find that they will increase their positive behavior, and this is an important form of personal power, as we like people who reward us and treat us nicely.

3. Legitimate Power. This is the power that comes with a position. A synonym is authority. All leaders carry some level of legitimate power, but it is what you do with that authority that makes you effective. Be consistent, and again, be humble about it, and you can use legitimacy more powerfully.

4. Referent Power. This power base comes from being liked, admired, and respected by others. It is the power of strong relationships. This is the power of charismatic leaders who attract and inspire loyal, admiring followers.

There are two facets of referent power that are important for developing this personal power base. The first is to be a positive role model – someone who others would want to emulate. The second is to be a supportive and other-oriented friend or colleague – be a good listener, be responsive, be nice.

5. Coercive Power. Coercive power is the power to punish and force others to action. This is a dangerous power base to wield. To use coercive power effectively, it is best to be subtle. Think of the iron fist in the velvet glove – make it clear that you have the capacity to punish or inflict harm, but use it only sparingly. Remember, power is a potential. You don’t actually have to use it to be effective, and coercive power should only be used when absolutely necessary.

We all possess different levels of these power bases. Learning how to use them effectively is the key.

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 Reference:

French, John R. P., Jr.; Raven, Bertram (1959).  The bases of social power.  In Cartwright, Dorwin (Ed), (1959). Studies in social power. , (pp. 150-167). Oxford, England.

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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