Referent Power: The Secret To Getting People To Do What You Want

Referent power shown by an influencer woman leader


Doesn’t it feel great when a colleague or a subordinate shows you respect and admiration? Do you ever feel glad after your team applauds your presentation? Is there a smile on your face when you go through the positive feedback you receive afterward? This is all due to the influence you have on those around you. Earning the trust of your co-workers helps boost general work morale. It also positively impacts productivity and improves engagement levels. This ability to influence others in the right direction is what we call referent power.


In this article on referent power, we’ll take a deeper dive into the following:

  • Referent power and what it means
  • Where the term “referent power” originated from
  • How referent power can help managers
  • Why referent power is effective
  • Other types of powers managers use to influence outcomes

Let’s get started with the basics of referent power.

What does referent power mean?


Referent power in simple terms is the trust and respect that you command from your followers. It is proof that people acknowledge your presence and recognize your efforts. Leaders use referent power, a soft skill, to build relationships and drive results. Managers find it easier to apply referent power when dealing with their colleagues.

Several industries have seen influential individuals wielding this tool of authority and charm. Here’s an example of referent power. Everyone knows Jeff Bezos for being more than just the Founder and CEO of Amazon. The entrepreneur commands the respect and confidence of thousands of Amazon employees worldwide. His work ethics, leadership qualities, and values make him endearing to all.

Points to Note About Referent Power

Before we talk about how referent power can help, here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Time and Patience – It takes a long time to gain the trust of your acquaintances. Building credibility is hard work. Trust is the foundation for all formal relationships. If you have the trust of your peers and subordinates, it makes it easier for you to reach a compromise or a solution.
  • Reliance – To build reliability you need to be consistent – in word and action. You show trustworthiness when you manage to hold up your end of the bargain. So play by the rules and try your best to meet deadlines.
  • Cooperation – Ensure that you cooperate with your fellow workers. Try not to flaunt your power and position around or lord over your subordinates.
  • Strategy – You should have a clear intent and align your objectives according to that. If you waver in your motives, you will find it hard to gain the trust of your employees.
  • Application – It is important to know when to use referent power. It wouldn’t make sense to use that power for certain situations like a crisis, as this ability is acquired over time with trust.

Now that you have an idea of how to gain referent power, let us move on to the origins of referent power.


Where does the idea of referent power come from?

The origin of referent power can be traced to the mid-20th century. In 1959, social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Rave conducted a study on the 6 types of power. According to the experts, referent power is a highly personal power that is not entirely related to influence or position. Your follower growth and loyalty depend almost completely on your charm and personality.

Find out what kind of personality you have with our Free DISC Assessment!


How can referent power transform your company’s managers into Leaders?

As a leader, you must share a good rapport with your fellow workers. Managers help businesses succeed by sharing strong connections with their subordinates. This illustrates that engaged employees perform better.
A Gallup study shows the direct impact of employee engagement on workplace culture. There is more to reference power than only building solid work relationships.

The following factors discuss how referent power can help managers succeed:

Boosts morale

Employee perceptions about their workplace affect performance. Workers with high motivation levels are more proactive in reaching corporate goals. Managers should motivate and uplift those under them daily.

You can boost employee morale in these ways:

  • Inculcate Healthy Relationships – Encourage one-on-one interactions with the staff. Although it could be time-consuming, these sessions motivate employees to put forward opinions. This would make the individuals feel that you take good care of them. So there is a sense of heightened positivity that affects performance.
  • Recognize and Show Appreciation – Give credit when credit is due. Remember to acknowledge the efforts of your employees whenever possible. Employee recognition supports work practices and actions that go hand-in-hand with productivity.
  • Delegate Responsibilities – Empower your workforce by giving them autonomy over their work. Employees feel important and in control of their duties when they have the autonomy to run tasks. Having a shared vision brings on a sense of collaboration and aids communication.
  • Stress upon Equality – Treat all members of your staff with equality. This prevents conflict and inspires employees to work as a team towards solving mutual goals.

Builds Productive Relationships

Leaders who have referent power instill a sense of respect among their followers. When managers are approachable and understanding, employees feel more inclined to reach out to them. This solidifies the much-needed bond that managers should share with their subordinates.


How can you use referent power to go from being a Manager to a Leader

As a manager, it is your responsibility to lead, from behind. Working alongside your employees helps you connect and resonate with them better. Use the following pointers to build referent power

Walk the Walk

It’s simple. Practice what you preach. If you expect your staff to adhere to certain standards, you need to model ideal behaviour. Set a good example and your colleagues will be sure to follow in your footsteps.

Aim for Perfection

Make sure you meet deadlines and deliver high-quality results within your allocated budget. You don’t have to be a perfectionist. But it’s important to stick to a high standard.

Inculcate Strong Inter-personal skills

To identify with your employees, you need to go the extra mile and treat them as more than just coworkers. Alternatively, you can get to know them better. Make yourself accessible.

Leave the Door Open

Be tolerant to new ideas. Your coworkers would appreciate it if you heard them out. New thoughts and suggestions add flavour to projects and inject fresh energy into the workflow.

Show Appreciation

Never fail to express gratitude. Celebrate the small wins just as you do the big ones along with the team. Employees who feel appreciated are more likely to stay loyal. You may choose to compliment your associates in public. However, never point out the flaws of a junior in front of others. Instead, focus on constructive criticism in private.

Take Responsibility

Lastly, a leader shows maturity when she defends her employees. Stand up for your team when the time comes. When you show that you’re on their side, they grow in confidence and will be ready to fight for you in the future. All things considered, remember that referent power isn’t only about gathering respect and building trust. It involves driving cultural transformation along with meeting organizational goals.

Why is referent power effective?

Reference power contributes towards the organizations’ success in the following ways.

Improves Productivity

When an employee observes his manager exhibiting strong work ethics and reaching daily targets, he resolves to be the same. You can increase employee efficiency by supporting your underlings with training and resources. Or you could look into workshops, seminars, technical coaching, and suitable courses. By providing the opportunity to up skill, you are ensuring excellence and eliminating unproductivity.

Employee Retention

A Harvard review states that employees quit their bosses, not their jobs. Managers are often negligent when it comes to their subordinates. In fact, managing is more than delegation and overseeing performance. Trust develops in the long term, hence, it would be wise to show genuine care about your employees’ careers.

If you want your employees to stay on, be sure to take an active interest in their jobs and lives. Having said that, you should be careful to avoid micro-managing.

Increases Collaboration

Giving workers a chance to share their thoughts and perspectives make them involved. Collaboration is essential for team projects to succeed. This management practice engages employees to take ownership of their work. Cooperation also fosters open communication and creativity.

Before embarking on a project, define the roles, establish rules, and communicate strategies. Set a structure for conflict management and encourage regular open communication.

team collaboration boardroom


What are some other types of powers that managers can use to influence outcomes?

Today’s managers use their leadership powers to inspire action. Let us look into the various types of leadership power for managers:

Legitimate Power

This power is gained through the official position or title held by the incumbent. Legitimate power is embedded into the job role and stays with the person as long as she stays in that post. All lower-ranking members in the organization’s hierarchy must abide by the power that comes with this authority.
An example of legitimate power would be a boss assigning tasks to his subordinates. All employees must undertake the responsibilities associated with the project based on this power.

Expert Power

As the name suggests, expert power comes with expertise. A skill or talent possessed by an individual that other coworkers don’t have. It’s not just managers or senior-level executives who can have expert power. The IT professional who works in silence in a corner cubicle could have expert power too. Likewise, you may have noticed people coming to you for advice or help on a particular subject. It’s because you have a knack for tackling problems on that topic. This is your expert power.

Reward Power

An individual in charge of employees has the power to reward them for their efforts and outcomes. This award acts as a motivator and pushes the workers to give their best. To illustrate, A CEO awarding his top salespeople with a holiday abroad shows his reward power.

Connection Power

A leader has connection power when he associates with influential people. You can use the power of connection to form strong alliances with relevant experts. Managers can acquire this power by networking and building relevant connections. Attending conferences and trade shows can help to a large extent. For instance, an executive wants to meet with the CEO, it would be helpful to get to know his right aide first.

Charismatic Power

This power stems from the leader’s natural personality and character. It doesn’t matter whether the person has legitimate authority. Your interpersonal style and charm will help to persuade people to inspire change and action. Charismatic power has a contagious impact upon one’s followers. Above all, learn to use your strengths to advantage and work on your interpersonal skills to become a naturally charismatic leader.

Informational Power

Do you have knowledge or data that others don’t normally have access to? If you answered yes, then you have informational power. You can use this power to make compelling arguments and persuade people to see your point of view. Like referent power, informational power is a type of soft power.
Keep in mind that information power is not a long-term power as it ceases to be useful when you share knowledge. A good case in point would be a project manager who has complete knowledge about the project he’s leading.

Moral Power

Leaders who have moral power are principled and follow a strict code of ethics. They live by their own philosophy and work towards a purpose with wholehearted dedication. The staff is inspired to follow these individuals when they align with the leader’s set of values. If you’d like to exert moral power, think and work towards the greater good. Additionally, it’s important to leave your ego behind. Learn to build unity and embrace change.

Coercive Power

It is a negative power based on threats and bullying to induce fear and obedience. The superior has the power to reprimand and punish his subordinates. Punishment may be in the form of harassment, discrimination, humiliation, a cut in pay, demotion, or even suspension. Often abused, coercive power brings about dissatisfaction and resentment.

Founder Power

This power comes from being the entrepreneur of a business. Your stakeholders respect you because you brought an ideal to life. Founder power remains with the businessman even after he has stepped down from his role. Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is a noteworthy example of founder power.

Which of these powers would you like to develop? Do note that most of these powers work in conjunction with one another to achieve set goals.


To recap, here’s how a manager can use referent power to become a leader:

  • Practice What You Preach
  • Aim for Excellence
  • Work on Interpersonal Skills
  • Be Open to Ideas and Listen Actively
  • Show Appreciation
  • Take Responsibility

In conclusion, Referent power is the ability of a leader to exert influence based on how the follower values the individual. Achieving that position and power requires a lot of effort and takes a long time. Keep in mind the above pointers and you’ll soon get a glimpse of your leadership transforming the organization.

Related readings:

Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:


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