Power in the workplace can exist in many different forms. It can exist even without a formal organizational hierarchy in place, and it can exist outside of any formal hierarchy that does exist. One particular type of power is called Referent Power. It is one of The 5 Types of Power identified by psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven in 1959.
Referent power is defined as the ability of a leader in influence a follower because of the follower’s admiration, respect, or identification with the leader. Another way to define this power is that a follower will refer to what they think their leader would do and do the same. You use this power when you use your status as a role model to get one or more followers to take some kind of action.
As you can see from the above definition, it is not a formal type of power, but rather a personal power. Where does this type of power come from? Well, unlike formal power, referent power is bestowed on a leader by their followers. Within an organizational context, this type of power becomes increasingly important as an organization moves away from autocratic leadership towards a more collaborative style where people work together to solve problems to get things done.
Organizational leaders and managers who have referent power have frequently gained this power over time by modeling the behavior they expect to see in others over a long period of time. This demonstrates appropriate conduct to the followers.
This types of power is also gained over time by delegating increased authority and autonomy to subordinates. In general society, celebrities have this type of power, which is why they are often paid a lot of money to advertise products to us. Their status as a role model makes us want to be like them and so we buy products that they promote as we think it will make us more like them.
From the entertainment world, Laga Gaga is an example of someone with referent power, having 67 million Twitter followers. These people respect her and want to know what she is up to. Some even aspire to be like her. In this respect, she has referent power over her followers.
From the business world, Elon Musk has referent power. The followers that work for him are proud to do so, and share his core value of using technology for the betterment of the world.
Some of the advantages of this type of power include:
There are a few things to watch out for with this type of power:
Referent power is defined as a leader’s ability to influence their followers because of the high regard in which their followers hold them. You build this type of power over time by modeling the behavior you expect to see in others, and by giving employees increased autonomy to do their jobs.
Image credit: Oninnovation
Bureaucratic Theory (Max Weber)
Path-Goal Theory of Leadership
Situational Leadership Model
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership
Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum
Legitimate Power in the Workplace
Level 5 Leadership