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Referent Power: What Is It and How to Harness It

Referent power is when others look to you for leadership because they respect you. Learn how to influence others, regardless of your job description.

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Think about one person in your life who you respect and willingly follow. They’re pretty amazing, aren’t they? That’s the kind of person you can become with referent power. 

What is Referent Power?

Referent power is when others respect and admire a person, regardless of their job title or position of authority. A person doesn’t have to be a manager to have referent power, but they will need to improve their charisma and the strength of their interpersonal skills. Referent power is also built by the strength of character and a clarity of vision and purpose. The authority you gain from this type of power can impact your work, personal life, and even interactions with strangers. 

What Are The 6 Types of Power?

In 1959, two social psychologists named John French and Bertram Raven categorized power into five main types. A year later, they added a sixth type of power. Today, their theory holds strong and may offer insight into what to do and what not to do as a leader. 

Let’s look at the six power bases from French and Raven1

  1. Legitimate Power is given through a position and responsibility. For example, a person is given legitimate power when hired as a shift supervisor. This could include the authority to assign tasks, set work schedules, and various things defined by their responsibilities and job description. 
  2. Reward Power is the power to reward others verbally or tangibly. This can include money, gifts, and verbal affirmation. 
  3. Coercive Power is the power to punish. Whether or not this power is used creates a strong power dynamic. If people know that a person can give them a bad grade or fire them, this naturally gives them a degree of authority and power. Be careful! Bad leaders rely on coercive power to control those under them.
  4. Referent Power is created through charisma. Whether or not a person has any other type of power, referent power enables one person to influence another person’s life. Other people choose to be influenced by the person with referent power rather than be forced or obligated to follow.
  5. Expert Power is created by expertise. Experience or credentials will infer expert power on a person. Others may look to that person for guidance or advice based on their expertise.  
  6. Information Power is the power to influence based on the possession of information or evidence. This power isn’t directly linked to the person but relies on the information. 

One of the first steps to using authority wisely is to improve your communication skills. This training was designed to help you become a stronger leader:

Master Your People Skills

  • Create a Memorable Presence
  • Communicate with Confidence
  • Achieve Your Goals

Have a question about the presentation or People School? Email Science of People support.

Why Is Referent Power the Best Power?

Referent power is the best power because it is given rather than taken. Many leaders will strive to gain power over others, but even when it feels like they are on top, others don’t respect them. 

Referent power is special because it’s the kind of authority that comes from being the best version of yourself. Legitimate, reward, expert, or coercive power gives people control, but it’s not dependent on ethics or strength of character. That kind of power is unstable and can easily be taken away. 

At the end of the day, no one can take away referent power. Because it’s built on good ethics and integrity of character, it goes where you go. Even if you lose (or never get) that prestigious position at a top company. 

How To Use Referent Power to Become a More Effective Leader

Referent power isn’t about learning techniques to manipulate others. Instead, it’s letting go of the hungry pursuit for power over others and embracing the desire to lead well. 

Don’t worry; we have five top-tier tips to help you do just that and harness referent power. 

#1 Clean the Toilets

There’s something compelling about a leader who willingly gets down and cleans the toilets. 

It doesn’t have to be a literal toilet.

It could be working through a laborious task or handling a particularly nasty client. Whatever it is, when a leader is willing to get dirty or do tasks that entry-level employees do, they earn respect and build referent power. 

Pro Tip: Employees need to know you’ll work beside them, but it’s also important to delegate tasks and let your staff do the work you hired them to do. 

Action Step: Over the next week, look for a way to serve your team. Is there a client that needs to be called, but the team has been putting it off? Is there an office project waiting for someone to have the time? Be on the lookout for ways to take a posture of humility and do what needs doing. 

#2 Be Trustworthy

Live what you preach. Model the behavior you want. Talk the talk.  

You may know you need to be the person you want staff to be, but are you applying this basic tip to your everyday work life? 

A shocking 63% of employees don’t trust their leaders2 Building trust starts with being trustworthy. 

Show up for meetings, be punctual, follow through on your requests, and communicate openly. These are just some practical things you can do to show your employees they can trust you. 

Pro Tip: Consistency in communication and behavior will help you build trust.  

Action Step: Take an honest review of your daily work habits. What is one thing you can do to be more trustworthy? For example, if you regularly change a project or request, make up your mind and stick with it. Or do you always skip the weekly meeting at the last minute? Block that time out on your calendar and treat it with the same respect as a client meeting. 

#3 Find the Balance 

While it may seem like referent power is all about kindness and affirmation, this isn’t always the case. Leaders who command respect expect their employees to give their best. 

Leaders with referent power are strong visionaries who fight for the end goal with clarity and even intensity. 

That doesn’t mean you have to be a bully. It does mean that you are focused on what is best for your employees and the company. Mediocrity is never the best for anyone, and that’s what you may find yourself with if you don’t balance high expectations with a supportive environment. 

Pro Tip: This is where communication becomes vital. If you constantly push your team, they may feel like their work is never good enough or that you’re just nitpicking. Let your team know you believe in them and encourage them to reach their potential. Balance critiques and high expectations with affirmation when they do well. Remember that everyone needs different kinds of affirmation. Some might value work-appropriate touch like a high-five, while others appreciate a hand-written note or a small gift. Not sure what makes people feel appreciated? Ask them! 

#4 Skip the Coercive Power

Even if you can fire someone, pass them over for a promotion, or deny their raise, don’t use this as a weapon to keep people in line. It may feel like you gain power, but this behavior harms loyalty and trust, making it hard for workers to care for or work hard. 

Let’s start with a mindset shift. 

Instead of looking at your power through the perspective of what you can take away, think about what you can offer. 

View it this way: you have the power to hire good workers, promote high performers, and grant raises.

Not because you’re a benevolent goddess or king who grants the wishes of your subordinates. But you’re a great leader who advocates for others. 

This extends to smaller daily things as well. Instead of always making the decisions because you have the power to do so, lift your team and let them begin making their own decisions. 

After all, they are adults; you’re a leader, not a parent. 

Action Step: Build a workspace that empowers people rather than keeping all the power to yourself. It may sound counterintuitive, but sharing power builds your own power. When employees come to you for permission or approval on something, instead of saying, “Yes, I approve that decision.” ask, “What do you think?” or “You’ve had a lot of experience in this area. I trust your decision.” 

#5 Supercharge Your Interpersonal Communication

Being a great leader always comes down to great communication. This includes what you communicate with your words, voice, face, body, and even what you write. 

If this sounds overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Focus on one area of interpersonal communication you’d like to improve. For example, do you have a commanding presence, but your voice sounds hesitant or weak? How you speak will impact how others perceive you and can either harm or help your referent power.

In this video with Vanessa Van Edwards, she breaks down how vocal charisma is connected to more than vocal resonance. 

Here are some other interpersonal communication tips for building referent power.

Improve email communication with an email audit. 

Open 5 important emails you’ve sent in the last few days and look at the first 10 words you used in each email. Count how many warm words and how many competent words you used. If you’re scoring low, slow down when you send an email and intentionally shift your phrasing to include words like “together,” “appreciate,” and “evaluate.” 

Use open and strong body language

Keep your head up and your body language open. You can also work on slowing down your movements. Many leaders move quickly, which can communicate busyness and lack of availability. Let others know you’re in command of your environment and available to talk. Slow your pace and gestures just a tiny bit. Practice this, and see what feels right to you and how others respond. 

Prioritize active listening. 

Some leaders do all the talking. Surprise others with your willingness to slow down and listen to what they say. When someone talks, focus on that person and engage with them. Even when you have many people or things clamoring for your attention, stay as present as possible. People notice whether you’re listening and whether it feels like you have time for them or not.  

Action Step: Pick one area of interpersonal communication, like vocal charisma or active listening, to work on this month. 

Harness Referent Power to Supercharge Your Life

Referent power is an incredible level of authority to reach because people are motivated to follow you out of intrinsic motivation. This means people respect you for who you are rather than what you can give them. 

That’s why referent power can positively impact the different areas of your life. You obviously want influence in your work environment; referent power can also spread to friends, family, and strangers. 

True referent power is developed through a lifestyle of pursuing excellence and goodness. 

Here are some ways to start building a lifestyle that others will respect.

  • Listen more to your partner or kids. Put your phone down, make eye contact, and interact with what they say to you. 
  • Pursue personal and professional development to grow and expand regularly. 
  • Look for ways to show kindness to friends, coworkers, and strangers. 
  • Be available for friends and family, not just for emergencies but also in day-to-day life.
  • Get involved with your chamber of commerce or other community organization.
  • Stay calm and respectful when dealing with toxic coworkers
  • Develop a vision and a passion so you are working towards a goal

Famous People With Referent Power

One of the best examples of a leader with referent power is Oprah Winfrey. While she also possesses an incredible amount of expert power from all her years as an interviewer, many people look up to Oprah Winfrey, never having met or worked for her. Her movies, shows, product recommendations, book clubs, and interviews influence people daily. 

Other examples of leaders with referent power:

  • Gandhi
  • Mother Theresa
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Obama
  • Zendaya
  • Elon Musk
  • Russel Brand
  • Dwayne Johnson

You may not like or agree with all of these people, but each of these charismatic leaders has a vast area of influence, largely based on who they are as individuals. What do all of these leaders have in common? Each of these great leaders has different personalities and leadership styles, but they possess many of these qualities. 

  • Strong communicator
  • Open-minded
  • Thoughtful
  • Present
  • Punctual
  • Committed
  • Empower others
  • Self-aware
  • Devoted to excellence
  • Able to see the perspective of others
  • Focused on a specific goal

Workplace Examples of How to Build Referent Power 

Now that you understand the general ideas behind referent power, here are some workplace examples to help you earn respect for how you lead. 

If someone says something you disagree with, instead of being critical or judgmental, listen quietly until the person expresses their point. Try responding, “What I’m hearing is… is that right?” Ask follow-up questions, and interact with the person with as much respect as if they were saying something you agree with. 

If you ask your staff to complete a project, let them do it. Resist the temptation to take over and complete the task yourself. If you want to check in on the project’s status, try to do that consistently (such as at a weekly team meeting), so it doesn’t feel like you’re adding pressure. 

If you say you care about your team, follow through with behavior that shows you care. Follow up on any concerns or personal information that employees have shared in the past, add birthday reminders on your phone, and be emotionally present when talking to your team. 

Show you’re available and available to offer support. This could include leaving your office door open when you aren’t doing focused work, offering to help if you see someone struggling, providing words of affirmation or encouragement when the team is working through a tough project, turning away from your computer when someone enters your office, ignoring notifications during one-on-one meetings. 

Give others authority and autonomy by working to streamline workflows. This can include removing yourself from the approval process or responding to things promptly. It’s probable you just have too much on your plate, but when tasks get bottlenecked by leaders, employees may misread this as an unwillingness to lead. 

Help others take ownership by creating a collaborative environment. Instead of having all ideas flow through you, ask, “what do you think?” and then actively listen. Make appropriate eye contact, nod to encourage the speaker, and then respond to what they’ve said. When employees are responsible for the ideas that drive a company forward, they’ll feel more self-respect and admire you for good leadership.  

Referent Power Roundup

As you work on building authority and trust with others, remember these key elements to establish referent power. 

  • Be the first to do difficult things
  • Stand up for your workers 
  • Encourage collaboration and interaction
  • Push for excellence but balance it with affirmation
  • Use power to give and support rather than to dominate
  • Work on your interpersonal skills
  • Be present and actively listen
  • Follow through on what you say
  • Care about other people

As a leader, you’re focused on the well-being of your team. Not sure what kind of a leader you are? Learn how to optimize your leadership style with our guide on The 6 Charismatic Leadership Styles.

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