Is Your Leadership Power Helping or Hurting?

If you are a manager, supervisor, or an executive at any level, I think you’ll find the latest research on leadership power relevant to your job, the people you lead, and the results you seek.

Consider this story shared by a woman in a workshop I was teaching on motivation.

While taking her normal elevator ride up to her office she found herself alone with the CEO of her company, whom she had never met. As she explained, “My heart raced. Should I introduce myself? When will I ever have another chance like this? But what if I make a bad impression?”

By the time the woman could gather her thoughts and decide what to do, the elevator stopped, the CEO stepped out, and the moment was lost. As she rode up the final few floors she was flooded with emotion.

“I was shaking. I was sad—disappointed—mad—frustrated—angry. I couldn’t believe how one person entering the elevator and not saying a word could generate so much negative emotion in me.” The woman said it had been a horrible way to start the day.

What caused all of the mental anguish? Real and perceived power. Without the woman’s perception of the CEO’s power, the dynamic in the elevator would have been far less tense for the woman. Research bears this out.

Dr. Drea Zigarmi, Dr. Taylor Peyton Roberts, and I recently completed research on how a leader’s power affects people’s motivation. We found that leaders at all levels need to be mindful and clear about the types of power they have and use. Our findings showed that the use—or the perceived use—of leader power usually results in people experiencing suboptimal motivation. Let’s take a closer look.

In 1959, social psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven described five bases of power that are typically in play in the workplace.

  • Reward power: A leader’s power to promise monetary or nonmonetary compensation or incentives.
  • Coercive power: A leader’s power to use threats and punishment.
  • Referent power: A leader’s power that causes followers to want to identify with, be associated with, or to believe in the leader.
  • Legitimate power: A leader’s power of position or title that gives the leader the right to request compliance from another individual.
  • Expert power: A leader’s power that comes through depth and breadth of knowledge.

Why are perceptions of power so important to understand? Because of their impact on motivation. A leader’s use of power can undermine people’s need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC)—the three psychological needs required for people to thrive, produce, and sustain high performance. Because people can potentially perceive their leader as having power over them in any of these five areas, you could be undermining people’s motivation and not realize it.

Here are insights on how to use your five bases of power more wisely:

  • There are two types of reward powerimpersonal and personal. Consider how you are using impersonal reward power to grant special benefits, promotions, or favorable considerations. Think about how you might be using personal reward power to influence employees’ feelings of being accepted, valued, and liked by you. Misuse of either leads to suboptimal motivation.
  • Understandably, the use of coercive power usually results in a negative relationship—and suboptimal motivation in those you lead. Coercive power creates a workplace where people waste emotional energy to avoid suboptimal motivation.
  • If referent power becomes too important, it can result in people who are afraid to disagree with you. It might surprise you to discover that when employees report managers exhibiting referent power, they also report experiencing suboptimal motivation because of their dependence on that leader for their internal state of well-being.
  • Even legitimate power—often referred to as position power—can be misused when it is perceived as “Do this because I tell you to.”
  • Finally, while expert power won’t necessarily result in people’s optimal motivation, withholding it can put them into suboptimal motivation.

As my colleague Dr. Drea Zigarmi so aptly puts it: “Power is very precious stuff. It entices the leader into flights of self-delusion and separateness from those they lead.”

Over 125 years ago, Lord Acton wrote the famous line, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and the less famous line, “The sole advantage of power is the ability to do more good.” Based on our research, we might follow with this advice: Let go of your dependence on power to get work done. Instead, consider your power as an opportunity to do more good by developing ARC-supportive skills to understand, appreciate, and respond to people’s psychological needs. You will create a workplace where people are optimally motivated to achieve results and have the energy, vitality, and well-being needed to sustain those results. Powerful!

About the Author

Susan FowlerSusan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, co-creator of the company’s Optimal Motivation and Situational Self Leadership training programs, and the author of the bestselling book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.

3 thoughts on “Is Your Leadership Power Helping or Hurting?

  1. It’s unfortunate that the CEO did not take the opportunity to extend a hand and ioffer the introduction. Sometimes, I think, leadership is also unsure of what to do in awkward situations. Thanks for the article. Well done.

  2. Dear Linda, You are absolutely right. And, this is an important point. Even when leaders with position power don’t wield it, their power affects interpersonal dynamics. This is why leaders need to be empathetic–a skill whose positive power we underestimate.

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