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Dhaka Tribune

Understanding where power comes from

Update : 28 Dec 2013, 07:18 PM

Leadership and power are directly linked, because people tend to follow those who are perceived as most powerful. Leaders have power for different reasons – the ability to let you off work early, assign you to your dream project or assign you work you hate, expertise in a given field, admiration from team mates etc. Can you recognise different forms of leadership in others around you at work, school or university, or at home? How about in yourself?

One of the most notable studies on understanding power was conducted by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959. They identified five bases of power, and the study is popularly still referred to as French and Raven’s Five Bases of Power, despite Raven having added an additional 6th base in 1965.

By studying the different forms of power, one can deal with people in a position of authority more effectively. Following are the six forms of power. Use these categories as a checklist to determine what forms of power you and others have; it is a common mistake to assume you are powerless, or have less power than the other person.

Coercive power

This is the power to compel and oblige others to do things against their will. It is often physical, but not limited to it. This is the power exercised by dictators, despots, rude bosses and bullies. Coercion often results in physical and psychological harm, but the wielder’s principal goal is compliance. “Or else” scenarios are often used to illustrate what will happen if compliance is not gained.

Coercion is also the ultimate power of all governments. While the word certainly has a negative connotation, it is also used to keep the peace. For example, a coercive parent might stop their child from associating with harmful elements in school because they don’t know any better. The other five forms of power are also used in coercive ways, such as when a reward or expertise is withheld or referent power is used to threaten social exclusion.

Reward power

One of our primary motives to work, to put it simply, is to make the money we need to conduct our lives the way we want to. There are other forms of reward – in fact anything we find desirable can be a reward, be it a vacation home or someone’s approval. Reward power is the ability to give others what they want, and in exchange ask them to do things for you.

Rewards can also be used negatively to punish (a method reminiscent of negative reinforcement) by withholding them. It is essentially “Do this and you will get that” or “Do this or you won’t get that.”

Legitimate power

Legitimate power stems from a person’s role – it is ‘legitimate’ under the law of the land. Kings, ministers, police officers and directors all have legitimate power.

The legitimacy is often meted down from a higher power.

A common delusion that people in such roles fall into is to forget that

people are obeying the role, not the person.

Legitimate power is that based on social rules and can have several different forms instead of just being based on position or role.


 Legitimate position power: The social norm of obeying people in a superior position. Legitimate power of reciprocity: The norm that we should repay those who help us. Legitimate power of equity: The norm of fair play and due compensation. Legitimate power of responsibility: The norm of social responsibility in helping others.

Referent power

This is the power that comes from another person liking you and wanting to be like you. It is the power of charisma and fame and is wielded by all celebrities as well as social leaders. In wanting to be like these people, we imitate them hoping some of it will rub off on us. Those with referent power often use it for coercion. One of the biggest fears for most people is social exclusion, and all it takes is a word from a social leader for us to be shunned by others in the group. School children are very familiar with this dynamic.

Expert power

This is the power of expertise and knowledge, and others being in need of that knowledge. This is a very common form of power and is the basis for a very large proportion of human collaboration, including most companies where the principle of specialisation allows large and complex ventures to be undertaken.

Expert power may be used by skilled labourers demanding better pay or working conditions. It may be used by a research and development engineer to demand for a better view or steep pay rise.

Informational power

This is the sixth base of power that Bertram Raven added in 1965: informational power. This is providing information to a person that affects the way they think or do things. Information alone is often not enough for this and is thus supported by an argument as to why the information should be believed. If the information is accepted then “socially independent change” occurs as the person continues to believe this information to be true and acts accordingly.

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