Your power in the workplace doesn’t just exist because of the job title you hold. Power can be present without a formal title, and can exist outside of any formal chain of command that is in place. One particular type of power is called Expert Power.
Expert Power is one of The 5 Types of Power identified by psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven in 1959.
Expert power is defined as the use of (the perception of) expert knowledge to get a subordinate to follow an instruction or order. Here, power comes from the subordinate’s belief that their manager or leader possesses expert skills or knowledge that they do not themselves possess.
As an example consider a company that sells all of their products online. At 3pm on a Friday afternoon their database crashes. Employees leave at 6pm, and many of them can’t work later as they have flights booked for a weekend away etc. In this situation the manager is facing the prospect of lost sales not just for that night, but for the whole weekend.
This scenario would cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost sales. Now suppose that a relatively junior engineer said they could fix the problem temporarily, at least for the weekend, in just two hours. All of the sudden this relatively junior engineer holds all the power, at least for the next two hours.
In fact, the power dynamic has been completely turned upside down, with the manager at the mercy of the junior engineer whilst the problem is being resolved!
As you can probably tell from this example, expert power isn’t a formal type of power, but rather a personal power based on expert knowledge. Where does this power come from? Well, expert power works because subordinates (and this could include your boss as the example above shows) clearly have the perception that your expertise and past experience will guide you to make the right decision.
Now let’s move on to look at the expert power advantages and disadvantages.
The key advantage of expert power is based on knowledge perceived to be held by the expert and not by others. Based on this, some of the key advantages of expert power include:
Some of the pitfalls of this type of power include:
Think of an economics academic who is working away in obscurity for decades before finally winning a Nobel Prize. Upon winning the prize, their status is immediately transformed into that of an international economics expert, and they may even be invited by governments to help set economic policy.
Their expert status means government will listen to what they have to say, and may even take on board their suggestions and change economic policy because of their expertise.
Expert power is a form of personal power a person has based on their expertise in a particular subject or domain. Expert power means people will naturally turn to you for guidance in areas related to your domain of expertise, and it can provide a great foundation upon which to build your career.
Experts need to be mindful that their skills may not last forever and they need open to the bigger picture and the ideas of those around them.
Image credit: Mai La
The 5 Levels of Leadership: Book Summary
Three Levels of Leadership Model
Blake Mouton Managerial Grid
Bureaucratic Theory (Max Weber)
Path-Goal Theory of Leadership
Situational Leadership Model
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership