Understanding the Five Bases of Power

Jun 29, 2022
Understanding the Five Bases of Power

A manager and employee were in the middle of their weekly one-on-one. When the manager gave some direction that seemed a bit unusual to the employee, she reasonably and honestly asked “why.” The manager responded, “Yours is not to ask why, yours is to do. If you must know, it’s because I told you so. And if you decide not to do this, your job is on the line.” 

True story!  


What is going on here? 

This manager relied upon one of five types of power that are available to him. Here, he relied upon Coercive Power - or the ability to punish someone. In The Bases of Social Power, the seminal 1959 study by John R.P. French, Jr., and Bertram Raven power is defined as the primary source in achieving results or compliance from another individual. 

1959? Does this study still hold up, and how can a Project Manager leverage this knowledge? 

The Five, No, the Six Bases of Power 

First, this study is still relevant today. Understanding where you, and others, derive the power and authority to get things done will go a long way in making you an effective Project Manager. It also allows you to tune into how others are exerting influence or authority over you and how to respond appropriately. 

The original study included five bases of power; a sixth was added a few years later, and is included below. 

  1. Legitimate - Legitimate power is the belief that a person has the formal right to make demands and to expect others to be compliant and obedient. Legitimate power appears in hierarchies such as the government or workplace. People are influenced by this type of power based upon social norms and rules of the workplace.  
  2. Reward - Reward power results from one person’s ability to compensate another for compliance. This compensation can range anywhere from an increase in pay, ability to set and provide bonuses, being given a new position or even a simple “thank you.” In terms of motivation, a reward is the carrot in the carrot-and-the-stick management style. 
  3. Coercive - Coercive power comes from the belief that a person can punish others for non-compliance. This sounds like, “If you don’t do this, your pay will be docked,” or, as in the opening example, threatening someone that they could lose their job. This is the stick in the carrot-and-the-stick way of getting things done. 
  4. Expert - Expert power is derived from a person’s high level of skill and knowledge. It is evident with the person who has been with the company for 20+ years and knows where all the dead bodies are buried. Or, it can be manifested by statements such as, “Let’s make sure we check with <insert name here> first before we move forward.” 
  5. Referent - Referent power results from a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness, or having earned the right to be respected. Referent power is not dependent upon a particular position or title in an organization. Rather, it is a personal power based upon respect and admiration from others. If you say someone has earned your respect, then they have referent power. 
  6. Informational - Finally, Informational power comes from the ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something. This can be evidenced by providing the information that someone needs to do their job successfully, or, withholding information that could set them up for failure. 

Which base, or bases, of power do you gravitate towards? 

Why Does this Matter to You as a Project Manager? 

This is important to you as a Project Manager because most PMs work in a matrixed organization. People do not report directly to you; rather, they are “on loan” from a functional manager who has assigned them to one of your projects. So, you aren’t their boss, you don’t give them raises, nor do you conduct their performance reviews. Three of the six bases of power are minimized:. Legitimate, Reward, and Coercive.  

This leaves Expert, Referent, and Informational Power. 

Arguably, these are the three that can make you most effective as a Project Manager. This means you know what you are doing (Expert), you have earned people’s respect (Referent), and you are plugged into the proper information channels and will share with others (Informational). What’s nice about these three bases of power is that they are not dependent upon any position or title in the company. Managers can come and go, organizations can shuffle and reshuffle, and you can continue to deliver results! 

Over time, as you advance in your career and project management journey, you’ll be able to add Legitimate, Reward, and even Coercive power to the mix. There’s a place for all six. It’s up to you to figure out the right ratios and when to use them. 

And, don’t worry about the employee at the beginning of this article. She used her Informational power and knew the job market was hot. She made a Legitimate decision to Reward herself with a better-paying job and set herself up as an Expert in a new company. Now that’s powerful!