Sources of Interpersonal Power, Part 1: Definitions and Examples



Hello! My name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee, professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership, here with MGT.EDU, the open-access business school. This video is the first in a two-part series examining the sources of power. In this case, we’re not debating the advantages of renewable energy versus fossil fuels. We’re not debating the merits of branch-chain amino acids or creatine. We are discussing interpersonal or social forms of power. In this video, we will cover their definitions and provide some examples. In the next video, we will discuss which sources of power might be best to use in the workplace, their practical importance, and how they relates to our ideas about management and leadership. Si hablas español, tenemos una versión en español de este video disponible en el canal de YouTube MGT.EDU. A transcript of this video is available on my website, robaustinmckee.com.


What do we mean by the term social power? Well, let us say that Person A has power over Person B to the extent that Person A can change the behavior, goals, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, or values of Person B. The literature describes various forms or sources of power available to us. Our ideas about power are largely derived from work by two researchers, French and Raven, in the 1950s and 1960s. They originally detailed five sources with a sixth added a few years later. Textbooks aren’t consistent with how many sources of power they include, but they generally describe five to seven. I am going to discuss eight sources because, as current or future managers and leaders, we want a comprehensive understanding of this important topic. Also, discussing eight instead of just five or six is unlikely to overwhelm you. If it does, I sincerely apologize.

So, the eight sources of power we’re going to talk about include legitimate, reward, coercive, information, expert, referent, prestige, and connection. We are going to discuss each one in order and provide some examples. When we describe them, we are adopting the perspective of Person A mentioned earlier, a person possessing a given source of power over others. In other words, Person A is understood to have power over Person B and perhaps others more broadly because Person A possesses a given base of power.


We’ll start with legitimate power. This power comes from a person’s position or role within an organization. If a person’s title includes a word like manager or supervisor, that person has at least some legitimate power. However, legitimate power can depend on context. For instance, a company working out of an office building might designate a nonmanager to oversee evacuations during a fire or other emergency. During such an emergency, that person would be in charge and would have the authority to direct everyone’s safe and timely evacuation, including those who would normally be his or her supervisors. In that context, the designated person has legitimate power. Generally, however, the higher a person’s rank within the organizational hierarchy, the more legitimate power he or she has.


Let’s move on to reward power. If a person has reward power over others, it is because he or she can access and distribute rewards that those others value. Within this framework, rewards are understood to be extrinsic factors like promotions, increased compensation, extra time off, access to better resources or amenities, better performance evaluations, and even the ability to provide legitimate recognition of good performance by issuing awards like “Employee of the Month.” Even something as simple a verbal recognition like, “Good job on the presentation today!” could be considered a use of reward power. Finally, social acceptance is a potent form of reward power that is not often discussed. Individuals and groups have reward power to the extent that others want to fit in with them.


Coercive power is a counterpoint to reward power. Whereas reward power focuses on a person’s ability to reward others, coercive power focuses on a person’s ability to punish or penalize others for poor work performance or noncompliance. Such punishment may take the form of firing, demotions, reduced performance evaluations, and verbal or written reprimands. I would even argue that punishment can take the form of relative deprivation. Let’s say that your supervisor issues a particular reward to everyone in your workgroup except you. Even though you would have experienced no absolute change to your status or condition, you will likely feel a relative loss compared to everyone else in your workgroup. In other words, you probably will feel as if you have been punished, when in reality, you have simply not been rewarded like everyone else. Finally, Similar to what I said before about social acceptance as a form of reward power, social rejection is a potent form of coercive power that is not discussed often. Individuals and groups have coercive power to the extent that they can shun others who want to fit in with them.


With reward and coercive powers, it’s important to keep in mind that it isn’t necessarily the rewards or punishments per se that grant a person power over others. A person’s mere potential to deliver rewards and punishments is often enough to grant that person some degree of power over others. Generally, as employees move up the hierarchy, they expand their reward and coercive powers.


Moving on, information power comes from a person’s ability to access information that is not readily available to others. Such information can exist in several forms, including databases, reports, and trade secrets. Crucially, access to information can also occur through social networks. If I have more-or-less exclusive access to subject matter experts through my social network, then I have information power. Generally, as employees move up the hierarchy, they have access not only to more information, but to more sensitive and proprietary information. However, this trend is not always the case. A lot of times, seemingly low-level assistants and administrators have access to a surprising amount of information via data, documents, and their social networks. So, always be nice to the people who answer the phones, schedule the meetings, and route the paperwork because they can destroy you.


Next up is expert power, derived from a person’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is similar to information power but differs in its source. Whereas information power relies on one’s ability to access information external to oneself, expert power comes through one’s possession or internalization of information in the form of knowledge, skills, and abilities. Just a few moments ago, I mentioned that information power includes access to subject matter experts. Well, those subject matter experts with internalized knowledge have expert power. In truth, you don’t need genuine expertise to exercise expert power; you just need others to believe that you possess expertise.


We’ll now discuss referent power, which is probably the most abstract form. People have referent power to the extent that others like them, want to be affiliated with them, and identify with them. We might use a term like charisma to describe this captivating appeal, allure, and attractiveness and its ability to inspire admiration, allegiance, and affection in others. Good public speakers have referent power, as do many politicians, musicians, actors, and comedians. There is something more artful in the use of referent power than in the use of other forms.


The six sources of power we just discussed are the standard ones, but a couple of others are worth briefly mentioning. For instance, prestige power comes from a person’s status and reputation. If people you don’t personally know have positive perceptions of you based on what they have heard from friends, colleagues, or the media, you will enjoy an enhanced sense of power over those people. Of course, a poor reputation can also preemptively diminish one’s power. Another source worth mentioning is connection power, which comes from a person’s association with other more powerful people. Let’s say that a member of a workgroup is friends with his or her manager. Although that member doesn’t necessarily have any more legitimate, reward, coercive, or information power than his or her peers, that member might be able to leverage the relationship he or she has with the manager to essentially exercise some of those forms of power through the manager. Connection power is often available to seemingly low-level assistants and administrators like I mentioned earlier, who may work closely with members of the upper echelon and thereby gain undue power.


Often, these sources of power are interconnected and reinforce one another. As an example, because I hold the title of professor, I exercise legitimate power over students when it comes to assigning coursework and grades. Because I have a Ph.D. along with some real-world experience, a small percentage of my students trust the things I say in class and, thus, grant me some expert power. I also have information power because I have access to all my students’ social security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, birthdates, criminal records, and school records, along with a host of demographic and psychographic data. Access to that data gives me information power over them that extends far beyond the classroom. It is wonderful. At the beginning of each semester, I analyze my students’ financial portfolios to see how well they are doing. I then use that information to more effectively “negotiate” with my students regarding donations to my own financial portfolio. I have studied negotiation tactics, so I also bring some expert power into these negotiations. I can then use my reward power as a professor to give better grades to more generous students. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not necessarily the students who give the most who get the best grades, but rather the ones who give the most relative to what they have. I believe in equality of opportunity. Related to this reward power is my coercive power to give worse grades to less generous students. I can also convert my information power into coercive power to destroy the credit scores of students who anger me, sass me, annoy me, or just look weird. I have been running this system for long enough that I have developed – let’s not say power of prestige but power of reputation – such that incoming students at the start of the semester already know that good grades must be “earned” in my classes. Increasingly, students now show up for the first day of class with envelopes that they discretely place on the podium containing modest donations that, in effect, pay tribute to my reputation power. Just so I don’t get fired, let me be clear that everything I just said about access to students’ personal information and accepting bribes for good grades is a joke. I tend to make a lot of jokes in the classroom and, at least with some students, that gives me some degree of referent power.


So, we now know how to define these sources of power. In the next video, part 2, we’ll discuss which sources of power might be best to use in the workplace, their practical implications, and how they relates to our ideas about management and leadership. So, please check it out!


Thanks for watching. I hope you found this video informative and at least mildly entertaining. If so, smash that like and subscribe to the channel. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, or you just want to say hi, please leave us a comment below. Again, my name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee with MGT.EDU. See you in the next video!