Power doesn’t need to be a dirty word

When you hear the word ‘power’, it is hard not to immediately think about ‘control’. Thanks to the negative connotation, many leaders run a mile at the thought of using ‘power’ as part of their leadership toolkit, but it can be a successful tool to engage, influence and motivate team members.

Power doesn’t need to be a dirty word and when leaders understand how the different forms can be used positively, it can be beneficial to both the leader and the employee. As many employers lean towards flatter organizational structures and autonomous and empowered employees, it is time that leaders reflect on their relationship with how, when and where they use power in their role.

The six types of power

In a 1959 study, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven famously defined five types of power that are present in social situations. In 1965, Raven went on to identify a sixth type. When used to influence another person, each of these six forms of power has different impacts on relationships and outcomes.

The six types of power are outlined below:

1. Reward

Reward power is commonly used and usually positively received. It is the ability for a leader to reward team members for reaching and exceeding targets or goals. It can be seen in the form of bonuses, pay increases or even promotions. The reward is the ‘power’ as it incentivises employees to perform at an elevated level.

Sometimes leaders want to use reward power more frequently, but are restricted by culture, budgets, and systems to accurately measure results. When the reward dries up, the power is weakened and when the employee receives the benefit; the power disappears.

2. Coercive

Coercive power is the opposite of reward power and involves forcing/coercing someone to do a task against their will. This is usually done by having the ‘power’ to punish them for being non-compliant. Coercive power is understandably closely aligned to negative effects and when used repeatedly may lead to turnover and bullying claims. It can, however, be used positively to demonstrate ’cause and effect’ for aspects such as safety where compliance is paramount.

3. Expert

Expert power is used by a person who has unique or superior knowledge in a subject needed by the business. Leaders or employees with expert power can earn peer respect based on their knowledge, but if that is used to leverage unfair benefits or to operate in a silo, then there are negative impacts. A person with expert power can be carrying and bring excellent results if the motivator is not personal gain.

4. Legitimate

Legitimate power is derived from a position or a construct of formal relationships. Leaders have legitimate power based on their position and what they are entrusted and empowered to do. For example, a leader has the power (after procedural fairness) to provide a warning to an employee that has been found to be in breach of a workplace policy. This power is normally used as intended, but sometimes leaders misuse or lose power with a new appointment.

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