Power and Influence in Leadership

Excited business leader ready to share ideas in meeting

When we think of people in a position of power, it may elicit negative thoughts of someone wielding power over others in a nefarious manner for personal gain. Power often has a negative connotation, perhaps deservedly so at times. However, power can, and is, used for good as well.

Types of Power in Leadership

Managers are responsible for ensuring performance and productivity of their team members, but how they go about doing that makes a difference in employee motivation, team member satisfaction and performance. Understanding how to use one’s power in an organization in a positive manner can help improve employee work and lead to better productivity as well. There are five main power bases managers can leverage including coercive, legitimate, reward, expert and referent power.

Coercive Power

You may have seen, or experienced, a manager that intentionally intimidates employees, or uses threats of being fired to try to get an employee to perform better or do things the manager’s way. Power in terms of manipulative behaviors is called coercive power.

When used by a manager to get employees to change behavior or work habits, coercive power can, in fact, be successful in temporarily achieving the desired results. Not surprisingly though, leaving people feeling intimidated, frightened for their job or bullied is not likely to have lasting effects on increasing productivity. In fact, employees who are fearful of a supervisor have less job satisfaction, which can lead to increased stress, absenteeism, lower productivity or even cause them to eventually quit. The opposite of the original goal! This can also negatively impact team members who witness this coercive behavior and become fearful of receiving the same treatment.

Legitimate Power

Fortunately, there are many other more effective leadership methods to influence employee behavior that actually produce long term, viable and positive results. Managers who understand how to leverage power in leadership for good possess the ability to encourage, motivate and help employees strive to improve. Legitimate power is the natural, formal authority a leader has due to their position within an organization.

We all know and accept that our boss has a given level of power that is expected in that position. As a manager, we also know that we have a formal power over employees, and it is up to us how we use it. This is an opportunity for a manager to form relationships with each employee to build trust and confidence, not only in a manager’s abilities, but those of employees as well. Demonstrating employee value allows a leader to help a person set goals, want to take on new tasks and feel good about their skills. In turn, this also builds loyalty to the organization, as well as to the team, which is a win-win. A leader who takes the time to get to know employees as people shows that they manage with care.

Reward Power

Effective leadership can come in many forms. Reward power is an example of a positive means to assist an employee or team to want to be better. As an employee, you may have experienced earning a bonus, or winning a prize such as a gift card, for being a high performer and meeting certain goals. Your manager used the power within their position to influence behavior by handing out rewards. At first glance, you might think back to coercive power and feel that this might seem a little manipulative. Indeed, using reward power requires transparency, fairness and clear expectations from managers in order for it to be effective.

The desire to reward employees for hard work is a noble effort, but caution should be exercised to avoid feelings of jealousy among coworkers who don’t win, and to prevent concerns over favoritism. It is important that all team members understand clearly how rewards can be earned and that every employee has an equal opportunity to earn them. Individual rewards can be a great motivating factor for some, but others may experience additional stress or self-doubt when comparing their progress to others. This is another good reason for a good manager to know their people and what motivates them as individuals. Taking this time to ensure rewards are relevant and meaningful to each employee will make them far more effective, which is the goal. In turn, improved employee performance allows individuals to experience success and elevates confidence. Providing an opportunity for employees to feel good about their work and reap the benefits in the form of a reward is a benefit to everyone on the team.

Team rewards, on the other hand, can bring people together and work toward a common goal. Rewarding a team for reaching shared goals can serve as a team building activity and can be anything from a pizza party to an outing such as a baseball game or a financial reward for each team member. A manager effectively utilizing reward power will consult the team to find out which rewards are most desirable for everyone involved. Since this might be a challenge depending on the team, different team reward opportunities could be offered each quarter, for example, to ensure all individuals are being equally motivated. We all want to shine at work and managers who use reward power effectively allow for more chances to do so.

Expert Power

Sometimes managers hold power due to their expertise in a particular field, or specialized knowledge or skill set. For example, a manager at an auto plant having extensive manufacturing process knowledge or a marketing manager having in-depth research and analysis skills. This is called expert power and is relative. A person with more expertise in a particular area holds more expert power than someone else with similar, but less, knowledge in the same area. Leveraging this kind of power to help employees improve in their own role might be the simplest to achieve.

Training is a perfect example and can be either formal or informal. A manager having expertise in a particular computer program used in the office could easily set up training modules for employees to learn a new process each week. This could be done in groups, or individually. Individuals having trouble learning the material could receive remedial attention from their manager to ensure they understand. Giving special attention to someone struggling can be the difference between frustration and achievement. This is a unique opportunity to use managerial power for good.

Aside from this more formal training approach, any individual with expert power can take advantage of teachable moments at any time. An IT manager overseeing employees who provide technical support to customers via phone could take the time to sit in on calls to provide an example of how they might handle a difficult situation based on their own vast experience. A medical device sales manager with a medical background can teach employees more detailed knowledge about physiology that could benefit their sales pitch and give them more credibility during sales appointments with physicians.

Taking time to show others what you know is sharing your expert power. This, in turn, helps them build their own expert power as well. Sharing one’s power with others may seem counter intuitive to some leaders, however, this selfless step speaks volumes about how much a manager values their employees.

Referent Power

Lastly, and arguably most important, is referent power, a form of personal power. Simply put, this is the power a leader achieves due to their ability to inspire others. One might refer to this type of person as the salt of the earth. Another term that aligns with referent power is that of a servant leader. One who exists to serve others as well as humankind, much like Jesus did for his followers. Leaders possessing referent power influence others through respect and trust garnered over time. Plain and simple, they are well liked due to their positive reputation.

Clearly this type of power is cultivated as a person’s actions, behaviors and work ethos shape the opinions of others as they become known as someone that others look up to or aspire to be like. referent power can be used to benefit the greater good, as well as the betterment of others. Managers like this want to see others succeed and will make every effort to help employees reach goals. A manager with referent power is a good choice as a mentor to serve those seeking to advance within a company and move up the corporate ladder.

As a manager, one could hardly think of a more worthy goal than to be someone that your employees respect and revere. Inspiration does not come easily to most, so a leader with referent power can truly impact the lives and work of others simply by setting a good example and being a positive role model. Their influence is positive and imbues reliability and elicits trust. Employees of a leader like this benefit because they can rest assured he or she has their best interest at heart. They make decisions with the well-being of others, as well as the organization, in mind at all times.

Feeling safe is important to employees in the workplace and job security is something no one wants to worry about. Managers holding referent power are transparent and communicate openly to maintain an informed, involved team. A leader leveraging this type of power spreads goodwill that supports the work they do. They openly recognize the hard work of others and give accolades when due. They want to recognize hard work and are happy to share the spotlight. Employees find comfort in a leader that they can trust. Loyalty is easy to achieve with a manager taking advantage of referent power. Employees want to do their best for a leader who does their best for them day in and day out. Referent power is an antecedent to benevolence, and it shows.

What Is Effective Leadership and Power?

It is vital to note, a person does not need to be in a formal position to possess power. Informal leaders play an integral role in any organization and should not be underestimated. As a formal leader, you have the ability to use your inherent power in leadership to help those working for you. This allows you the opportunity to assist them in building their own power as well. Employees can then use that power to grow professionally and potentially become managers themselves.

When demonstrating this level of care and concern for others, you set an example that is likely to be followed. As a manager, when you reward others, share your expertise and reap the benefits of esteem gained over time, the more frequent informal leaders will become throughout an organization as your positive use of power affects others in a meaningful way. This can lead to a collective, constructive culture where people are dedicated to lifting others up in a positive, supportive environment. Using one’s power as a manager to help employees be their best isn’t so hard after all and well worth the effort.

Are you interested in becoming a manager or learning how to leverage power in your current managerial position? Consider the Bachelor of Science in Business Management degree from the Colangelo College of Business at Grand Canyon University. With opportunities both online and on campus, Business Management students enjoy the opportunity to understand organizational behavior and structures, critically analyze business scenarios and strategies, interpret business data and learn to manage projects and resources. Potential workplaces for those holding a Bachelor of Science in Business Management include corporate businesses, schools, government agencies as well as the hospitality industry and marketing agencies.

If you are a manager with a bachelor's degree already, you may wish to expand your knowledge and learn more about power and influence in leadership in a more in-depth setting. A Master of Business Administration with an Emphasis in Leadership allows learners to explore a range of leadership topics, gain experience in the principles of ethical decision-making and problem solving, as well learn about business as a force for good. The values of servant leadership are emphasized as a way to build ethical organizations and work toward socially just communities. You will refine the answer to “what is effective leadership in business” and explore management principles as you learn practical application of models and theories of socially responsible business practices.


Approved by full-time faculty for the Colangelo College of Business on Dec. 1, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.