Tactical Leadership: How to Recognize and Use Power Types in the Workplace

The 7 Power Types-originally coined by psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven-remains a useful tool in characterizing 7 distinct forms of power in the workplace.

Experts have since observed that all power types can be effective, and none are inherently ineffective. However, each has distinct limits, goals, and perceptions versus realities — while some contribute more than others to the long-term health of an organization.

Professional relationship dynamics can also be complex, making it difficult to understand which power type you’re using or experiencing, as well as its effects on workers over time. In many cases, leaders and employees alike may even use multiple power types, or vacillate between two or more depending on circumstance.

Sound complicated? It is. That’s because using and recognizing power effectively requires an active role beyond memorizing set-in-stone rules. Instead, tactical leadership requires “reading the room,” identifying which power type or types should be utilized, and adjusting your management style accordingly. Luckily, this becomes easier with understanding different power types and how they show up in the workplace.

Regardless of your role in an organization, every employee has a unique relationship with their own power and that of others. Analyzing these not only brings clarity to your professional dynamic, but may also be the key to practically adjusting or improving it.

Reward Power

Characterized by offering benefits or prizes for good work, reward power depends on positive reinforcement.

  • Recognizing Reward Power: This type is easily recognizable when an employee can draw a clear correlation between their actions and a reward. However, it becomes harder to identify when a) the reason for the reward is not overtly stated by the person giving it or b) if the reward itself is lacking.
  • Utilizing Reward Power: Management can avoid confusion by stating what constitutes a reward before, during, and after it’s been earned. To maintain incentive, a leader should also be sure to offer something that’s actually valued by the employee(s); think tangible rewards like raises and bonuses versus words of affirmation or company-funded team gatherings

Coercive Power

Contrarily, coercive power is derived from the authority to punish employees for failing to follow rules, meet expectations, or deliver results.

  • Recognizing Coercive Power: Employees can identify less obvious instances of coercive power by tracking threatening language or tone. For example, a manager might urge you to complete a task by using words that suggest a sense of urgency like, “immediately,” or, “at once.”
  • Utilizing Coercive Power: Obviously, this power type is the most likely to cause resentment among employees and should be avoided. When you must use coercive power, it’s best to reference and follow an established protocol with which the entire organization is familiar. Examining company policy ensures you’re not reacting too harshly on a whim and that you can fairly justify the action.

Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is exactly what it sounds like: power derived simply from being the boss or a similar position of authority.

  • Recognizing Legitimate Power: Someone wielding legitimate power isn’t necessarily saying so. They might imply (and even think to themselves!) that they’re using a personal power type like referent or expert power (read on for these explanations). Be sure to examine what management is really bringing to the table.
  • Utilizing Legitimate Power: As the wise Tywin Lannister (any Game of Thrones fans?) once said, “any man who has to say, ‘I’m the king’ is no true king.” Remember: legitimate power is given and can therefore be taken away, and that it doesn’t mean much on its own.

Referent Power

Referent power is based on reputation. It comes from being well-liked and pleasant to work alongside.

  • Recognizing Referent Power: This power type is often used incidentally, rather than actively. For example, anyone with referent power can compel others to take on more than their share of a project just because they know team members won’t want to let them down — which can be a slippery slope towards coercion. Employees should take care to check in with themselves to make sure they’re helping each other out because they want to, and not because they feel they must.
  • Utilizing Referent Power: Honestly — don’t. Simply strive to treat everyone in an organization with respect, professionalism, and fairness without using your influence to, well, influence towards an outcome that serves your position or power.

Connection Power

Characterized by networking, connection power is all about building relationships to fuel professional advancement.

  • Recognizing Connection Power: This type of power is generally only obtained through communication. When you share your professional strengths, values, and preferences with colleagues as well as management, you may find they know of the perfect opportunity for you.
  • Utilizing Connection Power: Connections are often a positive force for change in the workplace as they can be utilized by employees and teams at all levels of business. The key to using it effectively is with thorough awareness, understanding and communication once you’ve identified possible alignment.

Expert Power and Information Power

Expert power derives from being an expert in any relevant field. Information power isn’t as extensive — it’s the possession of information about one project or process that’s easily passed onto others.

  • Recognizing Expert and Information Powers: A leader or colleague with expert power is trained in their field to the extent of being an authority on it, while someone with information power can only possess this information for a short time before passing it on. These types become hard to separate as they’re often utilized concurrently. For example, an HR representative is using their expertise on relationship dynamics when they identify the right person to join a team project, then use information power to relay the details of that project or new work arrangement.
  • Utilizing Expert Power: Anyone can temporarily wield information power, but maintaining expert power requires constant learning and teaching in equal balance. Continued learning is critical to maintaining this type of power while still staying open to being questioned and challenged, which allows for self-growth.

A leader can employ any power type to stay in power.

The focus must be on how and when to use your position to ensure long-term health, success, and happiness for your team, the broader company, and community at large.

Workplace Conflict Coach, Trainer, and Mediator. Owner of ONE EIGHTY. To learn more, visit oneeighty.io

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