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Which Types of Power and Influence Help or Hurt Others?

Learning to persuade and lead in ways that build motivation and commitment.

Key points

  • Power can be grouped into various bases and styles, with each having a unique approach to influencing others.
  • Hard styles that rely on coercion, punishment, and authority to compel obedience often create resentment and reduce commitment, research shows.
  • Soft styles that provide information, expertise, and role-modeling can improve relationships, increase self-determination, and boost motivation.

Although many different persuasion and influence techniques can be used to change the behaviors and attitudes of others, each may have a different effect on a person's motivation, emotions, and your future interactions with them.

For example, persuading a romantic partner is better accomplished through a combination of logic and appealing to emotional connections than through more coercive means. Similarly, using rewards in social interactions often has better long-term effects than utilizing punishment, even when both may have similar immediate outcomes on behavior. The divergent effects of these different tactics occur in other personal and business interactions as well.

Given that basic dynamic, I wanted to take the time to explore the types of power and influence with you more specifically, particularly their different effects on the motivations and emotions of others who are influenced by them. As we will see, not all power and influence types are created equal. While some types build others up and improve future interactions, others lead to resentment and apathy. Thus, it is important to know the difference and choose your influence tactics wisely.

Types of Power and Influence

The study of power has a long history in the social sciences and many ways of categorizing power have been developed. Among them, the bases of power by French and Raven (1959) have stood the test of time. Although additions and distinctions have been made throughout the years, for our purposes, the following can be considered the major types of power (Raven, 2008):

  • Reward Power: The ability to offer positive incentives and outcomes.
  • Coercive Power: The capacity to threaten or punish with undesirable consequences.
  • Legitimate Power: The authority to compel obedience provided by certain roles, such as supervisor or government official.
  • Expert Power: The clout from the perception that the individual has superior knowledge or skill in a particular area.
  • Referent Power: The influence arising from being a role model that others want to follow and emulate.
  • Informational Power: The capability to persuade by providing information.

These six bases of power can be further categorized in a couple of important ways. First, Raven (2008) notes that some of these bases of power (reward and coercive power) only function when the individual being influenced can be actively watched or monitored, while other bases (legitimate, expert, and referent power) are dependent on different types of social relationships. Second, Raven, Schwarzwald, and Koslowsky (1998) also categorize the bases of power into a hard style of power (reward, coercive, and legitimate) and a soft style of power (expert, referent, and informational). Taken together, we can begin to see two main approaches to power and influence: a harder approach that utilizes external incentives and pressures, and a softer approach that relies on internal motivations and personal decision-making.

Research on Power and Motivation

Peyton, Zigarmi, and Fowler (2019) examined the effects of these hard and soft forms of power on employee motivation and behavior. The results of their analysis indicated that the use of various power and influence tactics on the part of supervisors primarily impacted employees' feelings of self-determination (i.e. whether they felt their actions were freely chosen and supported, or were pressured and coerced). Hard forms of power reduced feelings of self-determination and left employees feeling unmotivated and externally coerced. In contrast, soft forms of power increased feelings of self-determination and made employees feel more internally motivated and identified with the organization.

Peyton, Zigarmi, and Fowler (2019) noted that these differences in motivation and self-determination further impacted employee workplace behavior too. Hard forms of power, which reduced motivation, made employees less inclined to perform in their jobs, endorse the organization, stay at the organization, or be good organizational citizens. In contrast, soft forms of power, which increased motivation, raised employees' desire to perform, endorse the company, stay there, be a good organizational citizen, and even use extra "discretionary" effort on the job.

Identifying "Good" and "Bad" Influence Tactics

Given the above, we can see the importance of self-determination for motivation, performance, and commitment. This effect is found in romantic relationships and organizational interactions too. Thus, if you want others under your influence to be happy, productive, and committed, then the choice is clear — rely on soft power tactics. Specifically, stay away from asserting authority and using punishment to pressure obedience. Instead, provide others with clear and complete information, share your expertise fully and honestly, and act like a role model to influence their behavior. Similarly, if you want happy and healthy interactions yourself, only give your trust and allegiance to those who behave and treat you that way too.

Having said that, it is important to note that we all sometimes slip and are quick to punish and use legitimate authority in order to control and mandate the behavior of others under our influence. We often reason that using such hard power is for the greater good of the relationship, the organization, or those other people in general. Even when immediate compliance is gained by such tactics and sanctions, however, motivation suffers and resentment grows. As a result, such pressure eventually becomes stifling and ends up eroding the very relationships, organizations, and social structures it initially intended to protect. Therefore, relying on soft power and promoting self-determination is the only way to influence others that maintains positive, healthy, and functional relationships with them. Otherwise, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" — and our genuine care to help and guide others slides into heavy-handed, oppressive overtures that dehumanize and diminish them (and us too).

© 2021 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


French, J. R. P., Jr., & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150–167). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

Peyton, T., Zigarmi, D., & Fowler, S. N. (2019). Examining the relationship between leaders' power use, followers' motivational outlooks, and followers' work intentions. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2620.

Raven, B. H. (2008). The bases of power and the power/interaction model of interpersonal influence. Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, 8(1), 1-22.

Raven, B. H., Schwarzwald, J., & Koslowsky, M. (1998). Conceptualizing and measuring a power/ interaction model of interpersonal influence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28, 307–332.

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