As business leadership becomes increasingly about teamwork and influence and less about ranking and control, referent power is growing in relevance with more and more managers seeking to develop this skill.
But what is referent power, and what are its advantages? And, most importantly, how should a manager act to earn referent power over their team? Let’s find out.
Referent power: definition, explanation, and examples
Referent power is one of the 5 Types of Power identified by psychologists French and Raven in 1959, the other four types being Coercive, Reward, Legitimate, and Expert. The five types are divided into formal power and personal power, with referent and expert powers representing the latter.
Referent power comes from the leader’s personal qualities, as opposed to their organizational role or their capacity to issue rewards or punishments. It’s a soft type of power that relies on trust and democracy — the manager influences their employees through admiration and respect. As opposed to other kinds of power, referent power is earned, not imposed. For this reason, it’s not a quick and simple process to acquire referent power, but it’s most definitely worth it.
Having a referent leader reduces employee anxiety levels, decreases counterproductive behavior, and fosters open communication within the team. Furthermore, referent power directly connects to better employee retention — studies show that up to 70% of employee turnover happens due to disliked managers.
An example of referent power in the workplace is a manager who is admired and respected by his subordinates and seen as a role model. In difficult situations, employees consider what their manager would do and try to take his or her example.
Now, let’s look at 8 ways to develop your inherent referent power.
1. Listen more than you speak
This tip may seem counterintuitive because a persuasive manager needs to instruct their team and show them guidance by telling them what to do. Right?
Referent leadership means using every opportunity to listen to what your employees have to say. This applies both to work issues and also to matters that concern employee well-being, work conditions, and growth.
When you talk to your team, and especially when they share a problem with you, listen in a way that shows that their perspective matters:
- Maintain eye contact,
- Nod or otherwise indicate that you’re listening,
- Ask follow-up questions,
- Avoid showing judgment even if you don’t entirely agree with what the employee is saying,
- When they’ve finished talking, give your suggestions right away or promise that you’ll think about ways to resolve the issue.
2. Trust your team, don’t micromanage
Employees can only take ownership of their work if you let them do their best without micromanaging the execution of their tasks. If you don’t trust your employees to deliver the needed results, one of these options is true:
- You haven’t hired the right people,
- You aren’t giving them a chance to try and do their best (even if it means failing and learning from their mistakes).
Referent power in leadership means empowering your team, helping and guiding them, if needed, but not monitoring every step they take at work. Paying attention to the results rather than every small action taken during a project reduces stress within the team, fosters accountability, and motivates people to do better.
3. Lead by example
Referent power in leadership means having the ability to cultivate respect and admiration of your followers in a way that makes them want to be like you. In other words, referent power is leading by example.
If you want your team to adopt certain habits or practices, you need to start by doing them yourself. Your subordinates will see that you aren’t “all talk” and gain respect towards you. In addition, employees will model your behavior at work and act as they believe you would act in the same circumstances.
In many cases, employees may not even know that they’re modeling the behavior of the leader. What matters is that their accuracy, timeliness, and thoroughness standards remain high, thanks to the equally high work ethic demonstrated by their boss.
4. Collaborate instead of giving orders
Referent power in management is hard to imagine without having strong collaborative relationships with your team. In an environment of collaboration, every employee has the chance to share their thoughts and ideas. Collaboration goes hand in hand with employee engagement, increasing motivation and a sense of ownership of their work.
In addition, effective collaboration reduces the need for bureaucratic procedures in the company and speeds up the workflow between teams and departments. Employees are aware that their work is about successful results rather than formal procedures and obtaining permission from authorities.
5. Be open to new ideas and feedback
Similar to fostering a collaborative environment, welcoming your team’s ideas is a win-win tactic. In fact, an open and creativity-boosting work environment is one of the advantages of referent power. Engaging your team’s input will make them want to do their jobs instead of treating it as an obligation.
Even the most creative leader won’t be able to generate fresh and potent ideas for years on end. Inviting your team to brainstorm and present ideas is a much more effective strategy. Employees, in turn, will feel that their opinion and suggestions are valuable and that they can make a difference.
6. Encourage and compliment your team
Some managers make the mistake of taking their team’s good work for granted or even worse — give out orders or criticize, but forget to praise or thank their teams for their good work.
Acknowledging your employees’ hard work is an integral part of referent power in management. Here are several ways to praise your team in a fair and attentive way:
- Ensure that great work is consistently given praise,
- Make sure you don’t neglect some employees while only praising others (don’t forget silent heroes who make up the reliable foundation upon which your company functions),
- Praise work-related wins, not personality traits,
- Highlight individual achievements as well as team accomplishments,
- Consider opening a Slack channel for saying thanks and sharing praise among all team members.
7. Take sincere interest in your employees
Behind each role, there’s a real person with real-life joys and problems. By showing reasonable interest in their private life, you’ll signal your team that you care about them and their struggles outside of work.
For example, on Monday meetings, ask your team how their weekend was and really show interest in their answers. Ask follow-up questions, and offer help if an employee is facing problems. If you can’t do anything about it, at least show empathy and understanding.
Regular team building events can help you get to know your team and help employees bond with each other. Informal settings allow for a more natural exchange of work-unrelated small-talk and getting to know each other better.
8. Be on your team’s side
In some situations, you can find yourself in a disagreement or even conflict between your employee and your client. These cases are never easy, but do your best to show your employees that you have their back. Even if it means bearing responsibility for your team’s mistakes, it’s better than shifting the blame on them in front of your customers. Later on, evaluate the situation objectively and see how such errors can be avoided in the future.
Situations, when there’s discontent with your employee from the upper management, can be an even bigger pickle. But even then, try to do your best to support your subordinates without appearing disloyal to the company. Fight for your team as much as you can, and your team’s gratitude and loyalty will be your reward.
Being a good boss pays off
In a nutshell, referent power is much about having pleasant qualities, empathy, and strong interpersonal relationships with your team. If you’re a referent leader, you can also be called kind, trustworthy, and fair. You take responsibility for your employees, all the while trusting them and not interfering with their work when it’s not needed. You don’t abuse your referent power, meaning that you treat all employees equally and facilitate compromise when needed.
Being a fair manager pays off and manifests in better business results, a comfortable work environment, and better employee retention. Good luck getting there!