The 5 bases of power is a model proposed by French and Raven (1959)1 highlighting the five ways in which power can be sourced and leveraged for people in leadership roles.
The 5 bases are1,2,3,4,5,6:
- Legitimate: The power a person has based upon their position in an organizational hierarchy. It represents formal authority such as being assigned as the manager, CEO, or even president.
- Reward: The power a person has based on their ability to distribute rewards to subordinates for completing desired tasks or meeting goals.
- Coercive: The opposite of reward power, this is based on a person’s ability to distribute punishments and disincentives.
- Expert: The power a person has based upon their recognized expertise on a topic, which leads others to defer to their expertise.
- Referent: The power a person has based upon their own personal charisma, rapport with followers, and ability to motivate and inspire.
The first three are considered formal power. The final two are considered informal or personal power7.
Other sources of power have also been proposed as additions over time, including:
- Informational: Raven (1965)8 subsequently proposed a new form, informational power, as distinct from expert power. It refers to a person’s possession of information that others do not have, but unlike expert power, is not reliant on social affirmation of a person’s expertise – your possession of the knowledge is enough.
- Self: Feminist theorist Morrison (1988)5,9 argued that French and Raven’s models of power reflect a patriarchal view of power, and that from a Feminist perspective, we might see power as coming from within. Marquis and Huston (2008)5 defined self-power as: “the power a person gains over his or her own life” which emerges through ego integration, maturity, security, and self-confidence.
I’ll explore each of these in more detail below, with the benefits and limitations of each.
Bases of Power
1. Legitimate Power
Legitimate power is the formal authority that a person gains from being assigned a position within an organizational hierarchy. Savage and Savage (2010, p. 24)6 define it as “authority that comes with a position and is therefore ascribed.”
Examples of legitimate power include being a manager, supervisor, school principal, CEO, president, police officer, military commander, and so on. These are positions, which is why it’s also often called positional power.
The greatest benefit of this power base is that it confers instant and unambiguous authority on its holder within the organizational structure3,6,10. If a sergeant commands a private to do something, the private complies because the sergeant has legitimate power over him. Furthermore, it is highly valuable in settings, such as the military, where a clear chain of command is required in times of crisis or when quick decisions are required3,6,10.
It’s believed to be quickly diminished if not paired with other forms of power. As Fiore (2004, p. 12)3 argues, it “will quickly dissolve if the leader fails to utilize other power sources.” This is because most people will “resist blindly following the leadership of others” (Savage & Savage, 2010)6. For example, if you come to believe your boss is not an expert in a topic or unable to distribute rewards or punishments, your deference to your boss’s authority will quickly diminish.
Sub-Types and Adaptations
Three additional sub-types of legitimate power have been proposed over the years. The first is legitimate power of reciprocity, which refers to the power someone has when they have done a good deed, compelling others to reciprocate on moral grounds. This concept is based on the reciprocity norm11. The second is legitimate power of equity, which proposes that we are compelled to give power to a person who has earned it, such as compensating someone for damages or paying them for their work11. The third is legitimate power of dependence, which proposes that a person who is in need as the power to compel us to provide assistance, such as when a person in a burning building compels others to rush in to save them11.
2. Reward Power
Reward power is the power someone garners through their ability to distribute rewards to subordinates. Luneneberg (2012, p. 3)10 defines it as “a person’s ability to influence others’ behavior by providing them with things they want to receive.”
Examples of reward power include the ability of a manager to provide a pay raise, promotion or bonus at work; and the ability of a teacher to hand-out stickers, grades, or privileges at school.
Reward power is considered the most effective short-term base of power12,13, compelling people to complete tasks in order to get a short-term extrinsic reward. It is also scalable, with stronger incentives correlating with greater effort. As Fiore (2004, p. 11)3 argues, “…the strength of reward power lies in the subordinates’ perceptions of the reward’s value.”
Over-reliance on rewards as a power base tends to lead to sensory adaptation (decreased incentive over time) and decreased intrinsic motivation to follow the leader15. The rewards need to be aligned with the desires of the subordinates to be effective. Furthermore, as soon as reward incentives are withdrawn, the power diminishes3.
Sub-Types and Adaptations
Raven (1992)14 argues there are two possible types of reward power: impersonal and personal. Impersonal refers to tangible rewards like money and gifts, while personal refers to intangible rewards such as social recognition and social approval.
3. Coercive Power
Coercive power is the opposite of reward power, reflecting a leader’s ability to provide disincentives and punishments. Northouse (2010, p. 7) states that it is “derived from having the capacity to penalize or punish others.”
Examples of coercive power include the ability of a teacher to distribute extra homework for low grades, the ability of a coach to get poor performers to run a lap of the field, and the ability of a police officer to hand-out fines for speeding.
Coercive power is considered second most powerful in the short-term after reward power12,13. Like reward power, it can be scaled. We can return to Fiore (2004, p. 11)3 for this argument: “the subordinates’ perceptions of the punishment’s strengths have a strong influence over the degree to which coercive power actually influences behavior.”
Coercion over the long term has the effect of engendering resentment, frustration, fear, and disillusionment3,6. The relationship between the leader and subordinate is strained, and intrinsic motivation and task satisfaction are diminished15.
Sub-Types and Adaptations
As with reward power, we can split coercive power into impersonal and personal14. Impersonal refers to tangible punishments such as a fine or reprimand, while personal refers to intangibles such as threat of rejection and disapproval, which is particularly effective (although deleterious) within personal domains such as romantic relationships.
4. Expert Power
Expert power is the power a person can leverage based on their recognition as an expert in a specific topic or field. Luneneberg (2012)10 defines it as “a person’s ability to influence others’ behavior because of recognized knowledge, skills, or abilities.”
Examples of expert power include the ability of your family doctor to convince you to follow a particular diet to improve your health, the ability of your electrician to convince you on the right course of action for wiring your home, or the capacity for a self-made millionaire to have others listen intently when he explains how to make money.
Expert power is the first in this list that is organic, inasmuch as it comes from genuine belief from followers in the leader, rather than through rewards, punishments, or the establishment of artificial hierarchies2,6,10. It therefore tends to supersede forms of power such as legitimate power. Take, for example, when a low-level employee is an expert in IT, so even the boss defers to their opinion when it comes to repairing the office computers.
Expert power doesn’t just come from having the right rewards of certificates. Rather, the expert needs three traits: credibility, trustworthiness, and relevance10,16,17. Credibility comes from social recognition of the expertise (proof, awards, etc.), trustworthiness comes from a reputation of honesty and openness, and relevance refers to whether the expertise is in the exact narrow topic in which the expert is speaking. For example, an expert in sociology doesn’t have expert authority when it comes to medicine!
Sub-Types and Adaptations
Raven (1992)14 proposes that expert power can be positive and negative. Positive expert power emerges when people are genuinely convinced to follow the expert due to their expertise. However, if the expert is considered untrustworthy, not credible, or having perverse incentives, we may get negative expert power, where people act in opposition to the expert out of belief the expert doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
5. Referent Power
Referent power is the power someone has out of their strong interpersonal relationships with others, compelling followers to follow them because the leader is highly respected, motivating, and inspiring. Kovach (2020)7 argues it is “based on respect and admiration an individual earned from others over time.”
Examples of referent power include a popular celebrity (who could use their referent power to endorse a product), a respected community leader who is listened to carefully whenever he speaks, and a beloved coach whose every word is closely listened to.
Referent power is considered to be the most longstanding source of authority, enabling someone to be a leader who can motivate and inspire followers over time18,19,20. Followers need no coercion or tangible rewards because they follow their charismatic leader out of buy-in, loyalty, and commitment to their leader. Furthermore, it requires less oversight and micromanagement from the leader than other forms of power3,18.
Referent power may be considered one of the most respected forms of power, but two limitations do exist. First, this is still best when paired with another form of authority – expert power – which combined give high personal power. Second, it can cause followers to become uncritical and unthinking, as with the case of cult leaders.
Sub-Types and Adaptations
Raven (1992)14 notes that, as with expert power, referent authority can act in the positive and negative. In the positive, it occurs when people follow the charismatic leader out of admiration. In the negative, it occurs when people act in opposition to a charismatic leader out of a need to differentiate themselves from the powerful leader, as with when there is a charismatic dictator.
|Base of Power||Definition||Features|
|Legitimate Power||Derived from a position of authority within a hierarchy, such as a manager’s power over employees.||Respect for this leader is often short-lived if not complemented by other types of power.|
|Reward Power||Power is sustained through distribution of rewards or positive incentives to others, encouraging certain behaviors.||Highly effective if rewards align with desires; can wane in influence over time (extinction); can unintentionally decrease intrinsic desire.|
|Coercive Power||Derived from the ability to punish or threaten others to encourage compliance or change behavior.||Can be highly effective but leads to fear, sense of alienation, and resentment.|
|Expert Power||Arises from possessing knowledge or expertise in a particular area, which others respect or rely on.||Respected when transparency is present; leaders spend less time monitoring employee performance, is most effective when paired with referent power.|
|Referent Power||Rooted in personal characteristics or interpersonal relationships (Cal & Mallette, 2015) that inspire admiration, respect, or emulation from others.||Garners commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty from followers. Less monitoring or micromanaging required.|
Other Types of Power
6. Personal Power
Personal power is the power someone has as a result of their own identity, rather than external sources or use of extrinsic motivators. It comprises of both expert and referent power19,21.
This power will follow the individual, regardless of their job posting or position on a hierarchy. For example, a person who is highly charismatic (a component of referent power) will likely retain their charisma when they move from leadership in one workplace to another. Similarly, their expertise stays with them19,21.
By contrast, reward, coercive and legitimate power are situational – if you no longer hold a position in an organizational hierarchy, your legitimate power will go away19,21. Similarly, your ability to reward and punish (coerce) others is often contingent upon your position or status. A police officer cannot issue a fine outside of his job, for example.
An example of high personal power is the power of a trusted and respected spiritual guru who is loved both for their charisma and knowledge of their religion.
7. Informational Power
Informational power was proposed by Raven (1965)8 as a new form of power that is an offshoot of expert power. As James (2023)22 defines it: “informational power is a type of power based on an individual’s posession of critical or valuable information that others need or want.”
This power differentiates it from expert power because it’s transferrable. Once you have passed-on the knowledge, your power over the other person has dissipated. Now that they have the knowledge, you no longer have the power over them8,22. In expert power, on the other hand, the depth of expertise of the authority continues to be respected and honored, even when information changes hands, because of both the skills and knowledge depth of the expert.
An example of informational power is when someone holds trade secrets which they will hand over to others if they do favors or the will of the person holding the power. Once the trade secrets are handed over, others will have no more incentive to do the bidding of the power holder as the information has been handed over.
Self-power is a type of power proposed by Morrison (1988)9 as a form of feminist power, designed as a critique of French and Raven’s (1958)1 bases of power model, which Morrison argues fails to explore issues from a feminist perspective.
Morrison claimed that a feminist worldview sees true power as coming from within, not from external sources such as information, expertise, or coercion.
So, she proposed self-power, which is “the power a person gains over his or her own life” (Marquis & Huston, 2008, p. 297)5 which emerges through ego integration, maturity, security, and self-confidence.
For example, a woman who has inner strength and self-belief has power from within that withstands external social power structures designed to hold her back5,9.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]