Five Types of Power

A recent post by a friend of mine describes a cease and desist letter he received from corporate leadership about his action.  His next post following discusses the culture of fear upon which that organization runs.  Wow!

I’m not sure if business leadership is different than just regular leadership, but I know how positions of power can lead to bad habits.  I wrote a book on ethics back in the day.  Good people can fall into a bad way rather quickly and people who find themselves in a bad way can change.

Let me provide a framework that fell out of vogue about 16 years ago.  Let’s talk about the five types of power (influence) that exist among the workspace.

  1. Legitimate Power:  I’m higher up the in pecking order so you have to do what I say.  This power is generally short term and should only be used briefly when establishing the relationship (Dr. Kertsten disagrees).  A leader who has to use this long term has a shallow influence.  Watch the person’s speech for how often they reference their position/pay in a conversation for clues.  Don’t think too harshly of folks who use this long term.  Many believe that they simply have a mandate from higher.

  2. Reward Power:  If you do XXX quickly we can go home early.  Reward power can be very effective, but it requires the right type of followers.  People who use reward power must clearly define goals and sometimes it’s not the reward, but the clearly defined goals amongst a sea of ambiguity that increase performance.  Dan Pink does a great job talking about his research on motivation.  Highly recommended.

  3. Coercive Power:  If reward power is giving something in exchange for performance coercive power is taking it away.  Leaders who use this might often use the word “behooves” or phrases like “it’s in your best interest.”  This is part of the culture of fear.  A leader who uses this authority might feel trapped and unable to change.  Keep reading, there’s hope.

  4. Expert Power:  This is where you know more than anyone else in the room about a particular subject and therefore your influence is paramount.  This isn’t just the ‘trust me, I know what I’m doing’ line from a 1980’s sitcom.  This is a legitimate reference to experience and wealth of knowledge that allows you to provide value to the team.  Creating an environment where those with expert power can’t voice their thoughts is extremely damaging.  If your experts are on the payroll but not saying much you might have a problem.  Can you tell the difference between silence because the project is going well or silence because their speech is stifled?

  5. Reverent Power:  Person over position, reward, punishment, or knowledge.  This is the type of power every leader ought to strive to develop and maintain.  It takes work.  It’s an ongoing challenge.  You can start off anywhere else on this spectrum.  You can use a combination of these powers but the one that carries your the furthest as a leader is the respect for who you are above everything else.  Reverent leadership requires being OK with a certain number of interruptions during the day to listen.  Sometimes reverent leaders feel they are being disrespected because of those interruptions and fall into the trap of exercising legitimate power.

Well there you go.  A framework to discuss leadership influence within an organization.  I mentioned some, but there are verbal and nonverbal cues to each of these, and I’m sure we could come up with a pretty chart at some point.  If anyone wants to hire me for consulting I’ll be available in May of 2018.  In the meantime I suggest some self evaluation.  None of these positions are static or exclusive.  We all have an obligation to help those in a destructive trap and getting to reverent power takes a lot of time and investment in your employees.