Boundless Management: "Chapter 9.1: Sources of Power"

Sources of Power

Power is the ability to influence the behavior of others with or without resistance by using a variety of tactics to push or prompt action.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how leaders can employ these sources of power and influence in a meaningful and ethical way.
  • Identify the six sources of power available to organizational leaders.

Key Points

    • Power describes the ability to get things done, sometimes over the resistance of others.
    • Leaders have a number of sources of power, including legitimate power, referent power, expert power, reward power, coercive power, and informational power.
    • All of these sources of power can be used in combination, and people often have access to more than one of them.
    • Power tactics fall along three dimensions: behavioral, rational, and structural.


  • Downward Power: When a superior influences subordinates.
  • Upward Power: When subordinates influence the decisions of the leader.
  • Power: The ability to influence the behavior of others, with or without resistance.

Power in Business

Power describes the ability to get things done. Those with power are able to influence the behavior of others to achieve some goal or objective. Sometimes people resist attempts to make them do certain things, but an effective leader is able to overcome that resistance. Although people sometimes regard power as evil or corrupt, power is a fact of organizational life and neither good nor bad in itself. Leaders can use power to benefit others or to constrain them, to serve the organization's goals or to undermine them.

Another way to view power is as a resource people use in relationships. When a leader influences subordinates, it is called downward power. We can also think of this as someone having power over someone else. On the other hand, subordinates can also exercise upward power by trying to influence the decisions of their leader. Indeed, leaders depend on their teams to get things done and in that way are subject to the power of team members.

The Six Sources of Power

Power comes from several sources, each has different effects on the targets of that power. Some derive from individual characteristics; others draw on aspects of an organization's structure. Six types of power are legitimate, referent, expert, rewardcoercive, and informational.

Legitimate Power

Also called "positional power," this is the power individuals have due to their role and status within an organization. Legitimate power usually involves formal authority delegated to the holder of the position.

Referent Power

Referent power comes from the ability individuals have to attract others and build their loyalty. It is based on the personality and interpersonal skills of the power holder. Someone may be admired due to a specific personal trait, such as charisma or likability. These positive feelings become the basis for interpersonal influence.

Expert Power

Expert power draws from a person's skills and knowledge and is especially potent when an organization has a high need for them. Narrower than most sources of power, the power of an expert typically applies only in the specific area of the person's expertise and credibility.

Reward Power

Reward power comes from the ability an individual has to confer valued material rewards or create other positive incentives. It refers to the degree to which the individual can provide external motivation to others through benefits or gifts. In an organization, this motivation may include promotions, increases in pay, or extra time off. For example, managers can reward employees with cash and other incentives is a source of organizational power.

Coercive Power

Coercive power is the threat and application of sanctions and other negative consequences. These can include direct punishment or the withholding of desired resources or rewards. Coercive power relies on fear to induce compliance.

Informational Power

Informational power comes from access to facts and knowledge that others find useful or valuable. That access can indicate relationships with other power holders and convey status that creates a positive impression. Informational power offers advantages in building credibility and rational persuasion. It may also serve as the basis for beneficial exchanges with others who seek that information.

All of these sources and uses of power can be combined to achieve a single aim, and individuals can often draw on more than one of them. In fact, the more sources of power to which a person has access, the greater the individual's overall power and ability to get things done.

Power Tactics

People use a variety of power tactics to push or prompt others into action. We can group these tactics into three categories: behavioral, rational, and structural.

Behavioral tactics can be soft or hard. Soft tactics take advantage of the relationship between person and the target. These tactics are more direct and interpersonal and can involve collaboration or other social interaction. Conversely, hard tactics are harsh, forceful, and direct and rely on concrete outcomes. However, they are not necessarily more powerful than soft tactics. In many circumstances, fear of social exclusion can be a much stronger motivator than some kind of physical punishment.

Rational tactics of influence make use of reasoning, logic, and objective judgment, whereas irrational tactics rely on emotionalism and subjectivity. Examples of each include bargaining and persuasion (rational) and evasion and put downs (irrational).

Structural tactics exploit aspects of the relationship between individual roles and positions. Bilateral tactics, such as collaboration and negotiation, involve reciprocity on the parts of both the person influencing and the target. Unilateral tactics, on the other hand, are enacted without any participation on the part of the target. These tactics include disengagement and fait accompli. Political approaches, such as playing two against one, take yet another approach to exert influence.

People tend to vary in their use of power tactics, with different types of people opting for different tactics. For instance, interpersonally-oriented people tend to use soft tactics, while extroverts employ a greater variety of power tactics than do introverts. Studies have shown that men tend to use bilateral and direct tactics, whereas women tend to use unilateral and indirect tactics. People will also choose different tactics based on the group situation and according to whom they are trying to influence. In the face of resistance, people are more likely to shift from soft to hard tactics to achieve their aims.

Last modified: Friday, March 29, 2019, 6:20 PM