French and Raven’s Forms of Power describes six sources of leadership power: Coercive, Reward, Legitimate, Expert, Referent and Informational. Each form of power, when used to influence someone, has a different impact on relationships and outcomes, some better than others.

Summary by The World of Work Project

French and Raven’s Forms of Power

We can crudely think of leadership as the ability to get other people to do the things that you want them to do. To be able to influence others in this way, leaders at work (or influencers in other situations) use different forms of power.

French and Raven studied this phenomenon in practice. They identified that there were six different forms of power that could be used to influence others: Legitimate, Reward, Coercive, Informational, Referent and Informational.

A stick demonstrating on of French and Raven's Forms of Power
Sticks can punish.

Each of French and Raven’s Forms of Power needs to be gained before they can be used, and the different forms of power are come by in different ways. In addition, each has distinct characteristics, distinct requirements and different levels of effectiveness with different people. The different forms of power also each affect the ongoing relationships with those being influenced in different ways.

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1 – Coercive Power

Coercion involves forcing someone to do something against their will. This is usually achieved by being able to punish someone for non-compliance. Coercion can only ever achieve compliance in others, it can never lead them to exceed a minimum delivery level. It also usually causes resentment and if used too much will cause people to leave. This power can be abused, watch-out.

2 – Reward Power

The second of French and Raven’s Forms of Power is reward power. Reward involves giving benefits to someone for doing something. This is almost the opposite of coercion.

Carrots demonstrating one of French and Raven's Forms of Power
And carrots can reward.

As with coercion, reward generally only achieve compliance. Reward generally only influences people work to the point at which a reward has been earned, after which there is no ongoing incentive. Some rewards are personal, like a nice “thank you” and these can be very powerful.  The power of rewards diminishes over time, and recipients of rewards may start to consider them as entitlements.

3 – Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is power derived from a position or a set of formal relationships.  Leaders in a hierarchies and elected officials have legitimate power. People are influenced by legitimate power and they will do what they are told due to the rules of society and the workplace. Legitimate power is fickle though. If someone loses their position, they often quickly lose their power.

4 – Expert Power

The fourth of French and Raven’s Forms of Power is expert power.

Expert power derives from an individual’s expertise. Their level of skill, competence and experience helps make them trustworthy and able influential to others.

Expert power is derived purely from personal traits and is wholly independent of  a position in an organization. Expert power only lasts as long as an expert keeps getting good results and is not acting purely for personal gain.

5 – Referent Power

When people are charming, we want to go the extra mile for them.

Referent power is based on being liked and respected as an individual. It’s derived from an individuals perceived value, worth or attractiveness.

Social media influencers have referent power. It’s a highly personal type of power and generally uninfluenced by position (though it may help individuals gain position). Referent power alone often isn’t that strong in the work place.

6 – Informational Power

The last of French and Raven’s Forms of Power is informational power.

Informational power is based on the ability to control the flow of information that is needed to get things done. It is often derived from having access to confidential information that others don’t know (information asymmetry).

Informational power can be very strong in our increasingly information and data driven world. However, once a source of information is lost, so is its associated power.

Availability of Power

As we mentioned in the introduction, people gain the different forms of power in different ways. Some adhere to hierarchical positions in organizations or society, some are available to people at all levels and some require the ability to observe and assess others. We consider each of the forms in relation to these factors below.

A table sharing more information on French and Raven's Forms of Power

Learning More

Trust is another concept you might be interested in, as is David Rock’s SCARF model, which looks at Social Threat in the workplace. You might enjoy our podcast on emotions and social pain at work as well:

The World of Work Project View

French and Raven’s Forms of Power are a good framework for considering power and influence in leaders, and more broadly in the world of work. They’re particularly helpful for aspiring, new and less self-aware leaders, and it’s worth noting that most leaders use a mixture of many forms of power.

A key thing we call out in relation to forms of power is the importance of power that is not associated purely with position. The positional powers of coercion, reward, legitimacy and information encourage people to reach a minimum level of delivery, but don’t really encourage people to take ownership of what they are doing and do more than the minimum.

chess pieces demonstrating the positional aspect of French and Raven's Forms of Power
Positional Power adheres to our roles and positions in the world of work.

Referent power, which results in other people wanting to please you for who you are as an individual, is the best form of power for getting people to really own what they’re doing and try and produce great outcomes. Expert and Referent power are very effective when combined and can form the basis of excellent leadership.

In summary, we think that this framework is helpful and leaders who understand it can become more effective.

Of course, power can be easily abused and is not always a great thing to have. In the words of Lord Action, who was far more eloquent that us, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. The same is, of course, true of women too.

Whoever you are, if you seek or have power, you should aim to use it with integrity. 

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This post is based on work by John French and Bertram Raven as originally published in their 1959 article: “The Bases of Social Power”.

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