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
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
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
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
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
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
legitimate right of some other individual or groups to prescribe behavior or beliefs for a person
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
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
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
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
- The supervisor explains to his subordinate the requested changes and why the new strategy might work
It should be noted that this model of authority will also be chosen by a leader or supervisor with a high
The motivations that determine the choice of a particular leadership behavior
Referent power in leadership
- The first and most crucial element of Referent power leadership is that, through everything they are and
the leaders represent a model for their subordinates. They are showing their strength and competence, but
they respect their subordinates and give them the friendship and attention they need. More than that, such
leader will never abuse his power for personal interests.
- The second one is that someone who leads through Referent power will constantly motivate their
These leaders can look at things both realistically and optimistically. They can present things so that
the employees will adhere to the projects with an open heart, and they will all aim to achieve the same
- 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
Moreover, the leader will enable them to adopt new techniques or approaches to find solutions and solve
- The fourth element that characterizes referent power in leadership is that members are treated as
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
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
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
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
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
Referent power advantages and disadvantages
Advantages of Referent power:
- Everyone can express their ideas will create a pleasant work atmosphere in which productivity will
- 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
- 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,
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:
- 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
- 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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.