Expert power refers to the power a person garners from being recognized as an expert in the topic by followers or subordinates.
Heldman, Baca and Jansen (2007, p. 348)1 define it below:
“Expert power occurs when the person being influenced believes the manager, or the person doing the influencing, is knowledgeable about the subject or has special abilities that make them an expert. The person goes along just because they think the influencer knows what they’re doing and it’s the best thing for the situation.”
Expert power is considered one of the most valuable forms of power, especially when paired with referent power. However, it also has its limitations and is very difficult to obtain, unlike legitimate and reward power.
Expert Power Examples
1. Surgeon During a Critical Operation
A surgeon exhibits expert power when they make crucial decisions during a complex operation.
While performing a surgical procedure, the surgeon utilizes his specialized knowledge and unique skills to determine the best course of action. Other medical staff in the operating room, such as nurses and anesthesiologists, trust and follow the surgeon’s instructions due to his demonstrated expertise.
In this situation, the surgeon is using expert power to ensure the successful outcome of the operation. He conveys confidence to the patient and the medical team through his competence and mastery in his field. However, it’s important for the surgeon to maintain humility and open communication, as overconfidence or lack of input from the team can lead to potential missteps.
2. Financial Analyst in an Investment Meeting
A financial analyst exhibits expert power when they advise on investment strategies in a meeting.
Upon examining market trends and economic indicators, the financial analyst uses his in-depth understanding to outline beneficial investment strategies. Other members in the meeting, including investment managers and clients, rely on the analyst’s expertise to guide their financial decisions.
In this situation, the financial analyst is employing expert power to influence the investment choices of the participants. This guidance not only aids in potential profit maximization but also helps manage investment risks.
3. Experienced Manager
A manager exhibits expert power when they tutor new employees about navigating the intricate dynamics of workplace politics.
Armed with years of experience, the manager understands the interpersonal relationships and cultural nuances unique to their department or organization. They use this expert knowledge to advise newcomers on their interaction with colleagues, management, and various office protocols. As a result, new hires listen intently, valuing the manager’s insight in successfully integrating and thriving in their new workplace environment.
In this context, the manager is using expert power to guide new employees amid the complex web of workplace politics. This guidance not only helps newcomers adapt quickly and efficiently but also allows them to avoid potential pitfalls or internal conflicts, thereby creating a harmonious work environment.
4. Professor During a Lecture
A professor exhibits expert power when they deliver a lecture on a complex subject matter.
In the classroom, the professor uses their profound knowledge and experience in a specific academic field to provide rich, insightful, and detailed information about the subject. Students, appreciating the depth of expertise, focus and learn earnestly from the professor to grasp the complexities of the subject.
In this situation, the professor is utilizing expert power to facilitate the students’ understanding of the academic subject. Their expert advice and direction not only help students to deepen their appreciation for the subject but also prepare them for future academic and career endeavors.
5. Electrician Repairing a Faulty Wiring System
An electrician demonstrates expert power when they diagnose and repair a complex electrical fault.
While working on a complex electrical system, the electrician uses his extensive knowledge and hands-on expertise in electrical systems to identify and efficiently repair faults. Homeowners or business managers trust and rely on the electrician to make sure that the electrical systems run smoothly and safely.
In this situation, the electrician is exercising expert power to ensure the optimal function and safety of the building’s electrical systems. The demonstrated expertise not only reassures customers but also underscores the importance of using trained and experienced professionals for such critical tasks.
Full List of Examples
- A doctor: can recommend a specific treatment plan based on medical knowledge.
- A scientist: might provide a credible opinion on a complex scientific matter.
- A seasoned chef: can instruct a team on preparing a complex dish.
- A skilled mechanic: might determine the best method for repairing a vehicle.
- A historian: can offer insights or context on historical events or patterns.
- A professional athlete: could teach techniques and strategies of a particular sport.
- A renowned musician: might advise on composition or instrument techniques.
- A financial advisor: can guide clients on investment and saving strategies.
- A language linguist: could assist in accurately translating complex texts.
- A skilled carpenter: might recommend the best wood and technique for building furniture.
- A seasoned pilot: can guide a crew through a challenging flight scenario.
- A software engineer: might determine the optimal coding approach for a software project.
- A master gardener: can suggest which plants will thrive in certain conditions.
- A veterinarian: might decide on the best medical approach to treat an animal.
- An experienced educator: could develop a curriculum that best meets students’ needs.
- A reputable journalist: might determine the most ethical way to report sensitive news.
- A professional photographer: can advise on settings and compositions for capturing striking images.
- A trained negotiator: might influence the strategy in high-stake business deals.
- A certified electrician: can determine the safest way to install wiring.
- A forensic scientist: might recommend techniques for collecting and preserving evidence.
- A language expert: could guide writers on using linguistically accurate and appropriate language.
- A skilled sailor: can navigate a ship through challenging water conditions.
- A trained meteorologist: might predict weather patterns and advise on related actions.
- A qualified architect: can design structures that are both aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound.
- A knowledgeable astronomer: can provide insights into celestial events and phenomena, guiding stargazing activities or research.
Benefits and Limitations of Expert Power
Expert power is generally considered to be highly effective3, but it is hard to obtain and narrow in scope.
For example, simply claiming to be an expert may not be sufficient. You need to somehow prove to others that you have more expertise4,5,6. As Lunenberg (2012, p. 4)4 argues, “followers must perceive the power holder to be credible, trustworthy, and relevant.”
Convincing others of your expertise could, for example, come form demonstrating expertise or providing sufficient qualifications5,6. But beyond this, someone who obtains expert power can only sustain it by demonstrating their expertise regularly.
Nevertheless, this is also a very powerful version of power. Even if you’re not the actual boss (i.e. you don’t have legitimate power), you may be given more respect and deference when it comes to your area of expertise. Take, for example, the boss deferring to the IT guru in the office when the printer breaks.
Additionally, Fiore (2004, p. 13)3 points out that this form of power is best in “a climate that is high in openness and trust.”
Other Types of Power
Expert power is one of the five types of power developed by John French and Bertram Raven (1959)2. It is considered one of the most desirable types alongside referent power.
The other bases of power are outlined below:
|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 and 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 skills that inspire admiration, respect, or emulation from others.||Garners commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty from followers. Less monitoring or micromanaging required.|
French and Raven, as well as others, have highlighted that expert power is one of the most useful types of power a leader can hold, alongside referent power (combined, they’re called personal power4,7). As Savage & Savage (2010)8 argue:
“Those who aspire to leadership roles must develop referent authority. Even the leadership attempts of experts will be ignored if the expert is perceived to be unethical or untrustworthy. However, the combination of expert and referent authority is very powerful and is characteristic of the most effective leaders.”
 Heldman, K., Baca, C. M., & Jansen, P. M. (2007). PMP Project Management Professional Exam Study Guide. Wiley.
 French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7(311-320), 1.
 Fiore, D. J. (2004). Introduction to Educational Administration: Standards, Theories, and Practice. Eye On Education.
 Lunenburg, F. C. (2012). Power and leadership: An influence process. International journal of management, business, and administration, 15(1), 1-9.
 Savolainen, R. (2021). Expert power as a constituent of opinion leadership: a conceptual analysis. Information Research 26(2) (Source)
 Singh, A. (2009). Organizational power in perspective. Leadership and management in Engineering, 9(4), 165-176. (Source)
 Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE Publications.
 Savage, T. V., & Savage, M. K. (2010). Successful Classroom Management and Discipline: Teaching Self-Control and Responsibility. SAGE Publications.
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]