Power in Leadership

Jul 15, 2010
7 Min Read

To lead a team effectively, you must use power effectively. One common leadership mistake that is all too easy to make is to fail to find your own unique balance of power.  The balance is important because you can overuse or underuse power.

There are several different types of power that come in to play in our workplace:

Coercive Power

Coercive power is type of power that comes to mind immediately when discussing the topic. When a manager uses coercion, there is some level of threat, insecurity, and fear involved. While it may produce changes in behavior in the short-term, the problem is that it causes a dysfunctional team environment, low job satisfaction, and poor results over a longer period of time. Most of us know this intuitively; we don’t like to be bossed around and told what to do and how to do it. Unfortunately, often during times of crisis, the use of such power often increases. If you have a dominant or aggressive behavioral style, you may fall into habits of using coercive power when stressed.

Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is probably the second most familiar type of power – it is a power that is comes from positional authority. We are very likely to comply with commands and requests that come from authority figures such as police officers, school principals, our parents, and our bosses. If you have direct reports or have been formally designated as a leader, you may be using (or abusing) this power inadvertently.

Coercive and legitimate power have value when they create order and prevent our systems from anarchy. But there is also some sense of detachment that comes with behavior that is motivated by compliance or obligation. That doesn’t create commitment or engagement. Instead, we are more likely to respond well to leadership that doesn’t overuse authority.

There is some sense of detachment that comes with behavior that is motivated by compliance or obligation.

Reward Power

Reward power can be monetary or it can hold some other positive value, such as praise. Rewards can be a potent incentive to motivate us to take some action. In fact, the use of rewards is generally needed to guide our behavior in the right direction. But when the reward as a means of power gets overused or inflated, it becomes a bribe.

Referent Power

Referent power comes from being a role model and others seeing you as someone they want to emulate. You become a mentor of sorts, and others will consider what you might do in a similar situation before acting. When you lead with patience, build relationships based on trust, and lead by example, you can influence others toward a shared vision with ease.  But this dynamic generally can’t co-exist with coercive and legitimate power in place.

Expert Power

A highly specialized skill set, a deep knowledge base, or years of experience leading to excellence give rise to expert power. With expert power, you are perceived as more proficient and, as such, are given more decision-making opportunities. This type of power is perhaps the most attainable as it is not constrained by current status and is most susceptible to perception. The scope of this power is limited to the extent of the expertise, though.

How to Use Power

There is a power paradox. Being in a position of power enables action: Those who are in positions of power are more likely to take action that creates value for oneself and/or for others. But finding yourself in a position of power also dulls your empathy, especially for others with less power.  So those with power are less likely to consider things from others’ point of view.

Knowing this, what is the most effective way to use power?

  • Write about a time when you have felt or used each different type of power listed above. This will create awareness.
  • When you need to act or need to lead, recall one of those situations where you have felt or used power. This will put you into a mindset that can tackle anything.
  • If you are a parent, a leader, a manager, or in any other position of power, create a deliberate process for taking time to consider what others are feeling. This will keep you humble and grounded.
  • Use the appropriate power for the situation. No more and no less.

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