Power Play #4: Referent Power

We continue our series of blogs on the bases of power and how they relate to workplace dynamics and our interactions with clients. To date, we’ve reviewed coercive power, legitimate power and reward power. In this blog, we’ll take a look at referent power – what it means, why it’s important, and how it can impact your interactions with colleagues, staff and clients.

In a nutshell, referent power is leading by positive example. It is gained by being admired for having strong leadership and interpersonal communication skills, by having cultivated respect and admiration, by being seen as worthy of your power position. Unlike legitimate power, in which directives produce compliance by subordinates because of higher status, referent power stresses collaboration, influence and positive relationships in having others act upon your guidance. People are attracted to you; they want to be like you and they want to be liked by you. They “refer” to your behavior in determining their own actions, and it may not even be something they are aware of. Because of its social persuasiveness and acceptance, it is a highly favorable way of seeing your directives executed to everyone’s satisfaction.

Trust is a key component in this power relationship, whether it is between staff and leadership or between clients and their advisor. Within the workplace, it empowers employees with increased responsibility and latitude in job performance. It works best in a workplace where employee turnover is low and in part, it contributes to that low turnover.

There have been studies that show cultural factors as having a bearing on its success in the workplace. For example, in North American culture, where a more egalitarian approach is accepted, it can be more successful than in cultures with more stratified social positions or among those accustomed to social classifications with differing power structures.

With all comers, whether clients or staff, referent power heightens engagement and enthusiasm and can provide a power basis for a productive relationship. It is highly attractive. However, because of its strong trust component, it requires diligent maintenance because once trust becomes questioned or eroded, regaining it can be extremely difficult.



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