The 10 Sources of Power and How Anyone Can Use Them
Power is for everyone, not just high-ranking members of society.
Posted March 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In my last blog post, I explained the difference between power and influence as they’re classically defined in business and organizational psychology, and I made the case that even though the words “power and influence” have some ambivalent connotations, these forces can be used in positive ways. I also reviewed Robert Cialdini’s seven principles of influence and, in what I hoped was a moving example of using these principles for good, I shared a letter that a former student of mine had written to his sick mother as a way to convince her to undergo treatment that she needed.
This time we’ll be looking at the principles of power, which are a lot more complex than many people realize. And though it might seem counterintuitive at first, we’ll see how power is not just something that belongs to, and is used by, those who fit the conventional image of powerful people—business executives, high-ranking politicians, and military officers, to name a few examples. It is also something that can be wielded, very effectively in fact, by ordinary people who occupy rank and file positions in organizations.
The 10 Sources of Power
In a classic 1959 study, two social psychologists named John French and Bertram Raven originally identified five different sources of power: legitimate, reward, coercive, expert, and referent. Six years later Raven added a sixth, informational. Over the years, based on research done by others, I’ve been able to identify four additional sources of power that I add to French and Raven’s original six when I teach my classes on power and influence in organizational politics. I came up with a mnemonic device to help my students remember them:
LoRCER, INC.’s Framed Agenda
The “LoRCER, INC.” part (minus the lowercase “o”) is an acronym, and the words “Framed” and “Agenda” represent the sources of power they refer to, framing power and agenda power. Let’s take a closer look at what each source of power means.
- Legitimate power: This is the one that’s most obvious. It’s power granted by the rank, status, and title that an individual or group has within an organization or society. Having legitimate power usually makes reward power and coercive power (see below) possible, though it isn’t the only way as I’ll explain shortly.
- Reward power: The ability to grant various kinds of benefits to others such as hire, promote, and give raises. It’s typically made possible by legitimate power, but the difference is in how they work. With legitimate power, the status and title alone demand that people comply. With reward power, people want to comply more out of a desire for the benefits and rewards implicitly promised for complying (e.g., promotions and raises).
- Coercive power: Basically the opposite of reward power. It’s the ability to punish in some way such as reprimands, suspensions, demotions, and ultimately termination. As with reward power, it usually comes together with legitimate power, and people will comply out of fear of being punished.
- Expert power: Power that comes from having specialized knowledge in a valued area. People will comply out of belief in the power holder’s expertise as well as the desire to benefit from that expertise and/or the fear of missing out on something if they don’t. For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the sudden transition to online learning, one person who suddenly became more important than just about everyone else here at the University of San Diego School of Business was a fellow named Brett Beyers. Mr. Beyers, you see, is the official tech guru of our department.
- Referent power: This is power that comes from charisma, likeability, and attractiveness (not necessarily physical), regardless of rank and status. People comply with this kind of power due to the admiration they have for the holder of referent power.
- Informational power: Somewhat similar to expert power but also different. Expert power is about specialized knowledge in a specific area. Informational power is broad and generalized knowledge about an organization, its culture, and its history. A person with informational power knows “how things really work” in an organization.
- Network power: Power based on the breadth and depth of connections a person has in their professional and/or personal network. There’s the old saying that goes, “It’s all about who you know.” When it comes to network power, at least, it’s true.
- Centrality power: Centrality is all about “being in the lo/op.” Lo/op is another mnemonic device to remember the words location and operational.
Location power is being physically visible. Jeffrey Pfeffer, a guru of organizational power, once told the story that his former office at UC Berkeley was one of the most powerful locations on campus because it was located across from the men’s room. Throughout the day virtually every business faculty member—this was back when most of the business faculty were men—would pass by, naturally leading to networking opportunities.
Operational power is when an individual serves as a funnel or hub for numerous important processes. Even if such individuals are not high-ranking, they are crucial to the running of an organization and therefore have operational power.
- Framing power: An easy way to think of this is as linguistic skill. It’s the power to use language to frame things in a way so as to influence how people view them. An example is the joke in which a young priest goes to a bishop and asks, “Your Excellency, may I smoke while I pray?” The bishop angrily answers, “No! I can’t believe you’d ask such a thing.” A week later the chastened priest returns and asks, “Your Excellency, may I pray while I smoke?” The bishop answers, "Any time is a good time to pray, my son.” That’s the power of framing.
- Agenda power: This is the ability to influence what is or isn’t acted upon, which is significant because the things that are acted upon are the things that get priority and resources in an organization. For example, there’s a 2018 study that showed that fake news sites, by virtue of what issues they “covered,” were able to significantly influence the agenda for what mainstream media outlets covered.
Anyone Can Use the Sources of Power
Among the sources of power listed above, which do you think requires having a high rank or status in an organization? The truth is there’s only one: legitimate power. This is the only one in which the job title matters. All of the others can absolutely be wielded by everyone regardless of rank. While most people won’t wield all of the other nine sources of power, at least not simultaneously, it is absolutely possible for them to wield at least one or more of them at any given time, depending on their unique set of talents, skills, and interests.
Take coercive power, for example, which is a source of power that many would associate with legitimate power. It’s true that individuals who have legitimate power (e.g., your boss) exercise their coercive power all the time through various kinds of disciplinary actions. But ordinary employees frequently exercise their coercive power as well, even if they don’t recognize it as such. They typically do so through lack of engagement, reduced productivity, and more absenteeism and presenteeism—things that hurt the company. Sometimes it’s done consciously and sometimes unconsciously, but either way these reduced performance metrics are often how employees use their coercive power when they are dissatisfied with the leadership.
Real-Life Examples of Bottom-Up Power
The business world is full of real-life stories in which companies made a commitment to make their employees happy and then those employees, in return, rewarded the companies using their reward power. Employees’ reward power usually takes the opposite forms of their coercive power—in other words, higher engagement, more productivity, and reduced absenteeism and presenteeism.
Southwest Airlines is an example in which a company and its leadership have used their legitimate power to give more power to their employees, and the employees in turn have used their own power to reward them for it. Years ago, when the airline decided it was time for a new uniform, it put out an unconditional open call to all employees from all departments. Anyone who wanted to submit thoughts and ideas was invited to, and the company eventually narrowed the pool down to a team of 43 employees to serve as their uniform committee. By doing this, Southwest was granting expert power to employees who were not traditional fashion or uniform experts. They were also granting agenda power to these employees by letting them prioritize things like comfort, functionality, and machine washability for the new uniforms. Empowering their employees in this way has resulted in Southwest employees being more engaged and committed, which has led to consistent growth and success for the company.
There are many other stories of this kind of bottom-up use of power, and although the psychological drive to punish or reward is sometimes a factor, it isn’t always. Sometimes the cause is accidental, as is often the case with centrality power, based on where your office or desk is. Other times, it’s simply a natural result of your interests and training, as is often the case with expert power. The underlying point here is that whether by choice or accident, most sources of power can be tapped into regardless of your rank or position in an organization or society, and this is one of the most misunderstood aspects of power.
An exercise I often do with my students is to ask them, “Raise your hand if you want power.” Very few students, if any, raise their hands. I then use my framing power and rephrase the question: “Raise your hand if you want to be empowered.” Virtually everyone raises their hand. Power isn’t just something that belongs to high-status people. Power is also something that belongs to people of every status who can use it to serve and protect their own interests, sometimes against those very high-ranking people who might have slightly less than altruistic aims. But to do that it’s necessary to understand what types of power exist and how they can be wielded. Hopefully, this post can help serve that purpose.