In a popular study in 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five types of power: Legitimate, Reward, Expert, Referent, and Coercive.
Throughout our careers as project managers, we wear many hats, and therefore, we utilize different types of power. Sometimes we come into a project as an expert in a particular field (expert power). At other times, we have the ability to give or deny resources for a project (reward and coercive power). If you’re named the Project Manager on a project, this very title brings you a form a power (legitimate power). And when we have no formal sources of power, we have to rely on our likeability factor and ability to influence others (referent power).
Let’s take a moment to delve a little further into each source of power and how you can use each, no matter where you are in your career.
Legitimate Power – This type of power comes from the belief that a person has a formal right to make demands. For example, a CFO has legitimate power over an intern working for them, as they are higher in the organizational ranks.
While we can’t always choose our titles and organizational hierarchy in our workplaces, we can choose what kind of project management titles come after our name (PMP®, PMI-ACP®, CAPM®, etc.).
We polled 70 Cheetah PMPs with various levels of experience, and asked them—how has earning your PMP® (and gaining legitimate power) changed your career? Here is what we found:
- Enhanced reputation within PM community (21%)
- Promoted within current organization (17%)
- Obtained a new job (16%)
Reward Power - This type of power comes from the ability to reward/compensate another person. Lets say you have the resources that a project team needs. In the past, you typically provided the resources with no questions asked, and when the project team says, “thank you,” and you say, “no problem.” Now, what is the problem here?
According the Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, the time when someone says “thank you” as a reward for something you’ve done is the crucial moment at which you have power. And here is how you can grab that power – instead of saying, “no problem,” you can say, “of course, I know that you would do the same for me.” This small change in semantics enforces the rule of reciprocity, and gives you power in future dealings with this party, as now they owe you one.
Expert Power – This type of power is based on a person’s superior skill or knowledge in a certain area of expertise. In what areas are you an expert? If you can’t recognize it, think to what people ask you to help with most often. Maybe it’s helping to negotiate a contract or to do a risk analysis.
Ask others what areas they think you excel in, and if you also enjoy doing these activities, you are well on your way to becoming an expert in that area. No matter what skill/area you ultimately choose, deliberately practice becoming better to develop the area(s) of expertise, and you will experience more power.
Referent Power – This type of power deals with your likeability factor. If you think going out to lunch with your coworkers and attending company-sponsored events is a waste of time, think again. The relationships and bonds that you build with your work associates can result in real power. People would rather work with people that they know and like then those that they don’t know and don’t care for.
For this reason, networking can bring you power as well. The more you network outside your immediate circle of friends and coworkers, the more opportunities (and power) you will find as a result of these connections. Take inventory of your likeability factor and work to improve it by having more meaningful connections with your close peers as well as broader connections throughout your industry.
Coercive Power – This type of power comes from the belief that one can punish another in order to achieve compliance from them. This is usually tied to legitimate power. For example, a boss has the authority to reprimand an employee for not complying with a request. However, this type of power can also be tied to reward/expert power if you have information/skills that could help someone, but by withholding this help, you are, in effect, punishing them. While you may want to use this power sparingly (or else risk losing referent power), it can only help you if you recognize when the opportunity exists to use coercive power, and go from there.
The next time you feel powerless, stop and think—what do I have control of in this situation? Chances are, it is a lot more than you originally thought.
May the power be with you!