Referent power

How to use your ability to instill in others a sense of belonging, acceptance, and personal approval

Mariana Holoștenco  March 19, 2022

referent power

Referent power can be seen as the influence and domination that one can exercise over other people.

Have you ever had a sense of oneness towards someone you look up to and value as a leader? Did you also have felt that you were identifying with that person and would like to model yourself after them?

This means you have felt the Referent power that person exerts over you.

And keep in mind that you don't have to think specifically about your professional life because the same thing happens in private life.

Referent power definitions

The Referent power is the ability of some people to instill in others a sense of belonging, acceptance, or personal approval, while they come to be seen as role models.

Some other definitions of this notion:

Referent power stems from the target identifying with the agent, or seeing the agent as a model that the target would want to emulate." (“I really admire my supervisor and wish to be like him/her. Doing things the way s/he believes they should be done gives me some special satisfaction.”)

Bertram Raven, The Bases of Power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2008, pg 3

Individuals who are attractive and socially adept – because of charisma, energy, stamina, political smarts, gift of gab, vision, or some other characteristic – are imbued with power independent of other sources.

Bolman, L. and Deal, T., Reframing Organizations Artistry, Choice and Leadership, 2008, p. 203

Power that stems from others identifying with an individual, or using that individual as a model.

Keith Dowding, Encyclopedia of Power, SAGE Publications, 2011, pg 23

Referent power is a form of reverence gained by a leader who has strong interpersonal relationship skills. Referent power, as an aspect of personal power, becomes particularly important as organizational leadership becomes increasingly about collaboration and influence and less about command and control.

What is Referent power, and what are the other bases of power?

The power exercised over people and how it influences their lives has always been an area of great interest and has been constantly investigated.

An outstanding study conducted in 1959 by social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven initially identified five bases of power. Later, in 1965, Raven completed them with the sixth one.

These power bases create a model that shows us how one's leadership and success can be influenced by different forms of approach and manifestations of power.

The six bases of power in a workplace

1. Referent power

From the point of view of power dynamics, this is categorized as informal because it does not require the presence of an authority to supervise everything.

In this case:

  • The subordinate will want to do the things entrusted to him by his hierarchical superior, whom he regards as a true role model. That's why he wants to do everything very well. The motivation comes from the fact that he admires, appreciates, and respects his superior. I really admire my supervisor and wish to be like him/her. Doing things the way s/he believes they should be done gives me some special satisfaction.
  • The superior is the one who has managed to impose himself or, better said, to gain his position through work ethic, behavior, and likeability.

In this situation, everything goes well when employees are the kind of people who do not need constant supervision. But the Referent power can become stressful for the person in charge when the employees need to be constantly monitored and guided.

Note that the Referent power is usually chosen by a leader with strong affiliation needs and concerns about whether their subordinates will like them.

2. Legitimate power

According to power dynamics, Legitimate power is a formal one. This means that it exists because of holding a formal position of authority.

In this situation:

  • The employee accepts the superior's requests simply because he considers it normal and has the right to do so. After all s/he is my supervisor and I should do what s/he requests of me.
  • The authority is mainly given by the position in the company structure. Or, as the authors say, it is the legitimate right of some other individual or groups to prescribe behavior or beliefs for a person French and Raven, 1959, pg. 265.

Notably, such a leadership model is usually chosen by a leader or supervisor with a high need for power.

3. Expert power

This one is, similar to the Referent one, a form of power categorized as informal because it can exist without any recognized formal authority. It is based strictly on the level of knowledge and experience a person has in a specific field. In this case, the social status or the position held in the company has no relevance.

When it comes to Experts power:

  • Employees are usually happy to have such people among them, and in no way do they feel threatened by them. My supervisor has had a lot of experience with this sort of thing, and so s/he is probably right, even though I don’t really understand the reason.
  • People who impose themselves with Expert power are characterized by their knowledge or skills and the fact that they provide support and assistance to those who need to improve.

The Expert power will usually be picked by a leader or supervisor with a need for achievement

4. Reward power

Another form of formal power. In this case:

  • Employees are rewarded for good work results and become an example to their colleagues. “I did it because s/he offered me a reward if I complied”
  • Superiors have the opportunity to give rewards and eliminate certain negative factors to create a positive work environment.

This form of leadership will be the choice of a leader with strong affiliation needs and concern that their subordinate will like them.

5. Coercive power

This is also formal in terms of power dynamics.

  • Employees will be penalized or punished for unwanted behavior or poor work results. “... threatened punishment if I did not comply.”
  • Superiors can appeal to publicly shaming someone, withhold a promotion, or threatening to terminate a contract.

A coercive leadership will usually be chosen by a leader or supervisor with a high need for power.

6. Informational power

In this form of authority, the relationship between supervisor and subordinate is informational.

  • The subordinate adapts his behavior because he understands and accepts indications received from his hierarchical superior
  • The supervisor explains to his subordinate the requested changes and why the new strategy might work better.

It should be noted that this model of authority will also be chosen by a leader or supervisor with a high need for power.

The motivations that determine the choice of a particular leadership behavior

swdh productivity system

Referent power in leadership

  1. The first and most crucial element of Referent power leadership is that, through everything they are and do, the leaders represent a model for their subordinates. They are showing their strength and competence, but also they respect their subordinates and give them the friendship and attention they need. More than that, such a leader will never abuse his power for personal interests.
  2. The second one is that someone who leads through Referent power will constantly motivate their subordinates. These leaders can look at things both realistically and optimistically. They can present things so that all the employees will adhere to the projects with an open heart, and they will all aim to achieve the same goals.
  3. The third fact that characterizes Referent power in leadership is that the employees are constantly intellectually stimulated. Therefore, employees' opinions and proposals are always encouraged and considered. Moreover, the leader will enable them to adopt new techniques or approaches to find solutions and solve problems.
  4. The fourth element that characterizes referent power in leadership is that members are treated as individuals, not as wheels within an industrial aggregate. Their leaders take into account employees' individuality and make sure that everyone has access to the necessary guidance or training, depending on their qualifications, talents, or possibilities.

A Referent power leader can create a shared vision for all his subordinates and inspire everyone to work towards their common goals.

Tactics of a leader who leads through referent power

Leaders who lead through referent power emphasize the relationship with employees and support all team members to use their strengths to create the changes that will lead to the bold goals they set for their team.

As for themselves, they:

  • are constantly learning and improving themselves
  • work on their own, without having to be pushed from behind
  • assume their responsibilities without reservation
  • are always aware of the responsibility they have towards the team
  • bold but well-informed decisions
  • demonstrates high moral standards

For their subordinates, they:

  • make sure that everyone knows and adopts the vision
  • effectively motivate and mobilize their team
  • are always open to their opinions or proposals
  • creates a beneficial and conducive work environment
  • communicate openly with all subordinates
  • provide courses or qualifications, as appropriate
  • allow them to make decisions

Referent power examples

Steve Jobs - is recognized as one of the most iconic leaders in the world. It allowed all employees to use and express their creativity. In fact, Apple is well known for its innovations.

Jeff Bezos - transferred his innovative style to his employees, always supporting them to think of new products and possibilities. But, as we know, Amazon is "something else" in terms of e-commerce and deliveries.

Barack Obama - was a president with a distinct personality, close to his employees, open to their ideas and thoughts of improvement.

Elon Musk - Apart from the fact that he strongly believes in his visions, he also can make others trust and support them.

Bill Gates - One of the most influential people in the world who turned from a businessman into a philanthropist and now continues to support various causes and start-ups.

Richard Branson - is a fantastic leader who puts his employees first. He inspires them with his charismatic personality and motivates them to feel at home when they are at work.

Oprah Winfrey - is one of the most powerful and influential women in the world. She constantly inspires people through her actions. She relies on a “leadership philosophy that prioritizes people, vision, and values.”

Michelle Obama - a perfect first lady with a high level of self-esteem. Close to her employees, whom she also treats with respect. She was involved in solving the problems of obese children and offered support to military spouses.

Referent power advantages and disadvantages

Advantages of Referent power:

  • Everyone can express their ideas will create a pleasant work atmosphere in which productivity will remarkably increase.
  • Both short and long-term deadlines can be easily respected.
  • Good collaboration always increases creativity and gives good momentum to innovative ideas.
  • The team will always find the best solutions exactly when they need to.
  • And let's not forget one of the most essential factors in a successful team - the happiness of its members. When they feel valued for their true value, they will work harder and express all their potential.

Disadvantages of Referent power:

  • There is a possibility that not all team members are equally involved. In this case, some of them will not consider or take to seriously the team visions or the proposed goals.
  • All the more so, the Referent power leadership is suitable for employees who always need guidance and supervision.
  • And while it is perfect for some organizational structures, this way of leadership is not exactly suitable for bureaucratic structures.
  • Something similar happens in crises, the Referent power leadership is not the best way to get over them.

Goals when acting with power

There are different ways to deal with situations where you want to impact when acting with power. But, depending on the specific challenges of each situation, the most important things to keep in mind when doing so are:

Showing up authoritative

This means that you have to be able to show, but without taking it to an extreme, that you are: in charge

  • able to make the decisions
  • more directive and controlling
  • able to privilege your knowledge and experience over what other people know

Showing up approachable

And this means that, also without exaggerating, you should be:

  • open to the new when subordinates come up with ideas or proposals;
  • empathetic with people who come to you regardless of whether they are dealing with personal or professional issues;
  • willing to take into account the knowledge and experience of others, without being influenced by their position or seniority in the team
  • able to relate to people on a human level. Very often, some small details can make a big difference.

Please note that this second past is as important as the first one. This is how you can make people feel that they want to be close to you and that they can come to you with whatever is on their minds.

This is what can help you to gain status.

Mariana Holostenco

Contributor at PlanArty

Economist with a degree in Marketing and International Economic Affairs. Mariana is passionate about efficient time management in business. Therefore, she shares with our readers and our team members her knowledge and experience in this domain.