Is there a link between power and influence? The answer might be easy. But, how is power exactly influencing our choice of tactics?

Power, an important concept

Power is an important concept and it’s central to many fields of study including political science, sociology, anthropology and psychology. It’s also a fascinating subject of many art forms. In theatre, for example, many famous plays deal with the motivations behind and the consequences of certain individual’s desire for power.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, is considered one of his darkest tragedies. It follows the Scottish Lord Macbeth as he struggles with choices about how to fulfil his own and his wife’s ambitions for power. In the end he chooses murder and, if you’ve seen the play murder, after murder, after murder. The play is perhaps best considered a study in the most dramatic use of hard influence tactics.

The six forms of power

Power is generally defined as the capacity for acting or doing, in this regard power and influence are related but not quite the same thing. Power is something that an agent possesses and influence tactics are what an agent chooses to do to apply or leverage power to get something done.

In a classic research article published in 1959 John French and Bertram Raven made clear that there really is not just one form of power, but actually five. They later expanded this list to six forms or what they call bases of power, which we’ll briefly review and then discuss how they relate to the effective use of influence tactics. So what are the six forms of power that French and Raven identified?

Coercive, reward and legitimate powers

Coercive power – this power is based on one’s ability to threaten with punishment. If you have authority as someone’s manager to fire that person or dock a pay, then you have coercive power.  Reward power – this power is based on one’s ability to promise monetary or non-monetary compensation. If you have authority to pay a bonus or give time away from work when someone does what you ask then you have reward.

Legitimate power – this power is based on the presence of formal or informal contracts in the workplace this arises from job descriptions and specifies who reports to who and who has authority over who. If someone is your direct responsibly work and you have authority to alter that person’s work assignments then you have legitimate power. Usually this also corresponds with reward and coercive power, but not always.

Information power

Information power – this power is based on one’s ability to provide relevant facts and figures.  I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase information is power and in today’s information economy it can certainly be true.

When you have all the relevant facts and you know who to talk to, then you have the capacity to provide or withhold that information to others who needed to get the job done. Such information can be acquired in lots of different ways such as by getting to know the right people actively seeking to learn from them or simply by being in the right place at the right time.

Expert and referent power

Expert power – this power is based on being recognised as having an extensive and relevant knowledge base this type of power typically occurs as a result of formal education or experience. It is not exactly the same as information power, which can arise in many other ways as I mentioned a minute ago expert power can also come from experience.

French and Raven in their seminal article used the example of a visitor deferring to the expertise of a local when asking for directions, that’s expert. Referent power – this power is based on people identifying with and admiring the agent in question. This is power that arises from loyalty and affection and you see it in operation when employees want to be around and help someone they admire.

A man with referent power

An example is Sir Richard Branson the founder and charismatic leader of Virgin group, which is a holding company for over 400 companies. Branson started his first company when he was just 15 years old, he’s described again and again by those who know and work for him as being a loved and admired.

In one of his books: Screw it. Let’s do it, Branson suggests that the secrets to his success in business are a desire to have fun and a willingness to let people around him try just about anything. He wrote that his Virgin staff called him Dr. Ye. That was his nickname, that’s a man with referent power and this story makes it easy to see connections between these power bases and the hard and soft influence tactics.