Guide to the five bases of power (types and steps to apply)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 11 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Power is an integral element of effective workplace and business leadership. Becoming a good leader requires that you know how powerful your actions are and that you can influence and inspire others with the decisions you make. Understanding the five components of power and why they're important can help you grow and improve your leadership qualities. In this article, we explain what the bases of power are, explore each component of power and show you how you can use them to position yourself as an influential and charismatic leader.

What are the bases of power?

The bases of power are workplace concepts that social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven identified in a study they conducted in 1959. As a result of the study, they established that power in the workplace comes in five different forms:

  • coercive power

  • expert power

  • legitimate power

  • referent power

  • reward power

In 1965, they added informational power to the list. Learning the five core bases can help you better understand how to build and use your authority to influence other people, including colleagues and subordinates. It also makes you a more conscious and better functioning leader who works to help the organisation achieve long-term goals through inspiring effective short-term successes of their staff.

Related: Guide to power vs influence (with definitions and methods)

The five bases of power

Using the five bases of power helps you build your influence as a leader and become the professional others look up to. Here are the five key principles of power and how they work:

1. Legitimate power

Legitimate power is when members of an organisation accept the authority of that organisation's leader. It concentrates on the belief that it's natural that a leader makes demands while expecting others to obey and comply with these demands. This principle works both inside and outside the workplace. Organisational leaders, team managers, parents and even teachers can naturally have legitimate power.

Related: A guide to management vs leadership skills (with tips)

2. Expert power

Expert power comes from a person's high level of knowledge, skills and expertise in a field. Experts are people who define and influence entire industries with their unique ideas, studies and discoveries. They have special skills that allow them to complete even the most complex tasks, which makes them indispensable in highly specialised areas like engineering, human resources or management. Thanks to developing expert skills, leaders build credibility and trust.

Related: What are areas of expertise? (With definition and examples)

3. Charismatic power

Charismatic power, also known as referent power, is when a leader can use their charisma and open-mindedness to make others feel comfortable when they're around them or working together. Typically, leaders who understand this form of power demonstrate devotion to the field, which makes others perceive them as worth following and admiring. This admiration comes from people's willingness to identify with the leader and find inspiration in their attractive form of power.

Related: 13 leadership styles and their characteristics

4. Reward power

Reward power concentrates on the idea that power comes from the ability to reward other people for their compliance or worthy behaviour. Powerful leaders often use tangible and intangible rewards to celebrate, recognise and compensate highly effective and efficient team members. These forms of reward may include promotions, additional time off work, better project assignments or psychological rewards, like publicly showing an appreciation of someone's work.

Related: What are intrinsic rewards and how to use them at work?

5. Coercive or punishment power

Also known as punishment power, coercive power is when others believe their leader has access to higher authorities and can discipline them for noncompliance. Although it's based on the idea that others may fear their manager's or teacher's power, effective leaders can use coercive power in a fair and positive context. To do that, it's essential for leaders to firstly communicate their expectations with the team and what objective measure they plan to use to assess everyone's performance. Using this form of power can come in a form of less attractive work assignments or, in extreme cases, even dismissals.

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Informational power as the sixth principle of power

Informational power is the sixth principle of power, which French and Raven added to their initial list six years after publishing the study for the first time. This base concentrates on the idea that power comes from a leader's control over the information that others want to achieve a goal. For example, a person may have access to a confidential project report. Another example of informational power is when a manager knows who the organisation wants to terminate before the information becomes public.

Types of workplace leadership

There are two common types of leaders, formal and informal. Formal leaders are people that organisations nominate for roles in the upper management. Their leadership usually concentrates on expert power and the authority they have within the organisation and their field. A formal leader's subordinates have little to no say in their actions and decisions, which makes the relationship between them strictly professional. Formal leadership is the most traditional form of leadership, and leaders of this type usually maintain their positions for longer periods of time.

Informal leaders are people that a group, often their work team, chooses to manage and represent them. Thanks to their charisma, they have a natural ability to influence and inspire others. Informal leadership may be brief because it's based on one's authority within a group and not on traditional organisational charts. The most successful leaders are people who combine elements of both formal and informal leadership.

How to apply forms of power as a leader

To become a better leader, it's critical to listen to your inner narrative and determine which elements of power align with your leadership style. Here are some steps you can take to apply and use power as a leader:

1. Review your leadership history

The first step to effectively using all elements of power is to reflect on your past performance. To do that, think about your strengths and weaknesses as a manager. It's also helpful to determine how you became a leader and what qualities made others see you as someone with authority.

Related: Leadership models: what are they and how do they differ?

2. Determine how you've used forms of power

Even if you weren't aware of the five forms of power before, it's likely that you've used them before to manage projects and teams. After reviewing each base, think about any situations in which you managed to use it. For example, every time you congratulated a team member for their performance, you used your reward power.

Related: How to demonstrate leadership with tips and examples

3. Think about the consequences of your power

Next, think about the impact that your power has on other people and workplace situations. You can list any expected and unexpected consequences of your leadership actions, such as when you disciplined someone for their noncompliance. This exercise can help you determine what you do well as a leader and if there's anything you'd like to do differently in the future.

4. Find inspiration in your supervisors

One of the best ways to improve your skills and choose your own leadership style is to observe others with power. By analysing the actions and decisions of those who have power over you, you can learn about effective strategies for influencing others. If possible, you can also work with a mentor who can guide you to use your power appropriately.

5. Ask for feedback

Not only your leaders but also your team can help you use your power more effectively. Asking for your team's opinion can help you build informal authority and position yourself as an open-minded and easily approachable manager. Seeing that your actions and charisma empower and inspire others can even help you regain your power in moments of doubt.

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