Types of Power

Authority, which we explored in the last few posts, provides legitimacy to the exercise of power. Power is control over outcomes. In this essay we will begin to explore the exercise of power.

Consider a person wielding a gun. Any person wielding a gun has the power to compel another person to do something against their will. If it is a police officer their badge authorizes them to use their weapon and protects them from later punishment. If that person is not a police officer, that same behavior entails threat of arrest and imprisonment. Police officers have rational-legal authority to compel others to their will using a gun. People who are not police officers generally have no authority to use a gun to enforce their will upon other people. Both the police officer and the ordinary citizen using a gun are exercising power, only the police officer can get away with this without suffering penalties.

There are several different types of power. A police officer using their gun to compel is an exercise of two types of power: legitimate power and coercive power. They are using legitimate power because their right to use a gun in the conduct of their work is prescribed in law and policy. They are simultaneously using coercive power, the ability to punish, because inherent in the use of a firearm are the associated threats of serious injury and death.

There are other types of power. Expert power is derived from a person’s advanced knowledge and skills. It could be a plumber, doctor, mechanic, psychologist, consultant, or anyone who has specialized knowledge. People whose particular knowledge and skills you would defer to or offer money to for their services are exercising expert power

Referent power comes from a person’s relationships. Referent power operates on two levels. First, this power is associated with being charismatic or well-liked; the ability to easily make connections to others. Secondly, this power is also based on who a person knows and has access to in their social networks. Referent power is the power to do favors, or make introductions, and to engender respect and admiration.

Reward power is the ability to offer incentives. In the context of power this means that you have the ability to reward people for appropriate behavior. Reward power is closely related to coercive power. Both are sanctions.

Legitimate, reward, and coercive powers seem particularly well suited to use by those possessing rational-legal authority. Referent power seems suited to those possessing charismatic authority. Expert power is seemingly suited to both. However, leaders and managers (who possess some type of authority) can use any of these powers that are available to them.

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