Posted by: kerrywills | May 25, 2012

Types of Power

In their classic 1959 study on the bases of power, social psychologists John R. P. French and Betram Raven identified five categories of power described below.

Category Description
Legitimate Power Power of an individual because of the relative position and duties of the holder of the position within an organization. Legitimate Power is formal authority delegated to the holder of the position.
Referent Power The ability to influence others based on interpersonal relationships and the ability to build loyalty. It is based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder. A person may be admired because of specific personal trait, and this admiration creates the opportunity for interpersonal influence. Here the person under power desires to identify with the personal qualities of the leader, and gains satisfaction from being an accepted follower.
Expert Power The ability to influence others based on one’s skills, knowledge, experience or expertise. It is a function of the amount of knowledge a person has relative to the rest of the team members in the group or project.
Reward Power The ability to influence others based on control over desired resources such as money, gifts or promotions
Coercive Power The ability to influence others through the application of negative influence or the removal of positive events. It might refer to the ability to demote or to withhold other rewards. It’s the desire for valued rewards or the fear of having them withheld that ensures the obedience of those under power.

In the historical project landscape, Project Managers had the authority over project resources and mostly focused on using legitimate, reward and coercive power. Today since most resources are not direct reports and we work in matrixed projects, these techniques are less effective. Also, because of the complexities of technologies and business process on projects, it is hard for a Project Manager to have expert power in the technologies or business.

Therefore, in the current environment the Project Manager must rely mostly on referent power and must take more of a consultative approach towards resource management and their interaction with project stakeholders. This is why my book focuses primarily on consultative and influencing skills because that really is the main type of “power” that we have.


  1. Unfortunately, referent power has a wide range of definitions ranging from charisma and charm to possessing integrity and being trustworthy to (what was the original definition by French and Raven) being associated with power.

    Generally, project managers (particularly contract PMs) lack much in the way of formal/legitimate or reward/penalty power (of course exceptions exist) so most power comes from being either an expert (arm yourself with a PMP, PgMP, Prince2 etc) or referent authority which, I would consider, being more than just charismatic (although that’s important) but also that you trustworthy and demonstrate integrity. Only then can you really establish the kind of power that people will be willing to follow.

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