Sources of Interpersonal Power, Part 2: A User's Guide


Hello! My name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee, professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership, here with MGT.EDU, the open access business school.

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. Let’s get into it.


If we focus on the first seven sources of power we discussed – legitimate, reward, coercive, information, expert, referent, and prestige – Are there any commonalities among some of them such that we can split them into, say, two groups? I’ll go a step further and ask – Is there anything the first four have in common as compared to the last three? I’ll go even a step further and ask – do the first four share a common source as compared to the last three? If you’re wise enough to suppose that the answer to that question is “yes,” good! What is that source? What gives someone legitimate power, along with the right to reward and punish, and access to information? Well, those powers generally rely upon an individual’s hierarchical position within an organization. So, those four powers are collectively referred to as position power. Position power must be granted to an individual by an organization.


What’s the source of the last three powers – expert, referent, and prestige? Well, those powers rely on the personal attributes of the individual possessing them rather than some external source like hierarchical position. The person has expertise. The person has charisma. The person has prestige. Or at least the person is perceived by others as having those attributes. So, those three powers are collectively referred to as personal power. Personal power must be cultivated by an individual seeking to possess it.

Let’s now discuss how these sources of power are related to our ideas about management and leadership. If you’re unfamiliar with the distinction between management and leadership, please watch our video comparing the two concepts. There is a link in the description below. Briefly, managers are defined by their titles and the formal positions they occupy within organizational hierarchies. Leaders, on the other hand, don’t require a formal title or position. A leader simply needs to have one or more followers who voluntarily accept the person as their leader. Of course, we would hope that our managers are good leaders and that good leaders will find their ways into managerial positions, but those things don’t always happen.


By definition, managers have position power, but the personal forms of power are also available to them if they work to cultivate them. Leaders, on the other hand, have almost certainly already developed some of the personal forms of power by virtue of their status as leaders, but may not have position power because they don’t necessarily occupy managerial positions.


Question: is it better for a manager to rely on position power or personal power?

You could argue that the position powers should be best because they can be used immediately by new managers and they can achieve immediate results, even for seasoned managers. After all, the moment someone becomes a manager, they have position power. The moment a manager offers a valued reward or credibly threatens punishment, the manager is likely to gain compliance from his or her employees. On the other hand, the personal powers can’t immediately be acquired or deployed because they take time to develop.


Despite that rationale, I would argue that if you are a manager and you are deriving a substantial portion of your power from your position, you are probably not well liked or respected by your subordinates, and those subordinates are probably not highly motivated or committed to the company, the job, or you. If your messaging to subordinates to compel them to do their jobs is something like, “You have to do what I say because I’m the manager,” then you are a probably bad manager. Subordinates are going to respond much better if they realize your expertise, admire your charisma, and appreciate your reputation.


Let’s take this discussion a step further and ask – of the sources of power that we have discussed, which ones seem the most potent? More specifically, if you could choose to have one source of power to maximize your job performance, which one would you choose? Which source of power is going to make you the best performer? How about legitimate? Information? Maybe expert? The correct answer is expert. Cultivating expertise in your field in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities will have the greatest impact on your personal performance, which could result in increases to your prestige power and, eventually, promotions yielding greater position power. A related question – if you could choose to have just one source of power, forfeiting all others, that would maximize your capacity to influence and change other people, which one would you choose? How about reward or coercive? Maybe prestige? The correct answer is referent. Referent power is the most potent form overall. As such, it is also potentially the most dangerous form. Referent power is really about creating an emotional and psychological connection with others. It goes far beyond the transactional nature of position power, and even eclipses expertise and prestige when it comes to influencing others. It is a key component of effective leadership. Referent power was a key weapon in the arsenal of some of the most reviled figures in history, from religious charlatans and cult leaders like Jim Jones to dictators like Adolph Hitler. Such leaders are only able to attract their followers and to compel them to commit unconscionable acts by creating a profound emotional and psychological connection with them. However, referent power has also been used to brilliant effect by those fighting to better humanity, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa. I mention these two people in particular because they possessed very different communication styles. King had a more dynamic delivery that is almost universally inspiring, but that some people may feel uncomfortable trying to emulate. However, Mother Teresa showed us that you can speak softly and still have immense referent power.


One caveat I should mention is that the different people we are managing or leading may respond differently to the various forms of power we might try to use. So, even though I just argued that referent power is overall the most potent form, there are going to be some people for whom other sources are more impactful. So, generally, as managers, we want to make appropriate use of the full suite of powers available to us. You should provide rewards for good performance. You likely should have penalties for poor performance. You should leverage your access to information, expertise, and prestige. And, of course, you should try to connect with others through referent power. Used properly, all these sources of power should reinforce one another.


Now, one final point I’d like to make. What does it tell us that expert power and referent power are the most potent forms? What do they have in common? Well, we already answered that question. They are both forms of personal power, meaning they are available to anyone regardless of title or position. Of course, having a title and position probably affects how readily others perceive us as experts or as charismatic. But, it’s not a cause-and-effect relationship. So, the overall takeaway is that even if you are low in the organizational hierarchy, you still have potent sources of power available to you if you work to cultivate them. And, even if you are high in the hierarchy, you would be well advised to cultivate and rely on the personal forms of power rather than just your position power.


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!