This article is part of The Ascender, the Highrise platform for articles and resources.

What is Referent Power and How to Build it?

Andrew Langat
February 6, 2023
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How a leader exercises power largely determines whether it results in enthusiastic commitment, passive compliance, or stubborn resistance. - Gary Yukl.

In our personal and professional lives, we are bound to be attracted by certain personalities; this may be an older sibling, a celebrity, or your workplace boss.

We may admire how they lead, their conflict resolution skills, their emotional intelligence, or their mannerisms.

This way, they influence us - positively or negatively.

Such personalities, irrespective of the levels of leadership, have power over us. This power is not fixed and may change depending on circumstances. In this article, we shall describe referent power and how leaders can learn how to use referent power effectively.

Leaders who build referent power tend to influence their workplace strongly. This is because, unlike other forms of power, this form of power makes it easy for followers to respect and follow the leader because of their unique personal qualities.

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Referent Power Definition

Referent power is the personal power of a leader or individual over the followers based on a high level of identification with, admiration of, loyalty, respect for the leader, and leadership skills.

Followers gain a sense of satisfaction from identifying with the pleasant qualities of the leader; essentially, they revere the leader. This way, the leader can fully maximize the purpose of leadership.

Referent power leads to an inclination to deliver the best to a leader as they are liked or admired and gain and maintain a leader’s approval and acceptance. Etc.

A follower will likely do what the leader asks, develop a similar attitude, and even imitate the leader’s behavior.

Conversely, a leader can use referent power to destroy or harm reputation due to the personal power they yield among their followers.

Referent power is one of the bases of social power as defined by Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959. Other sources of power they explored include:

  • Reward power: This is based on the ability to reward. In a workplace, this power is derived from a formal authority with the power to allocate resources. When there is a higher reward, there is an incentive to deliver more.
  • The converse is true. An example of reward power is offering a bonus to the sales teams for meeting sales targets.
  • Coercive power: This power relationship relies upon force, threats, or punishment if a team member does not conform to the influence attempt. The goal of this form of power is not to enhance a given behavior but to deter it.
  • An example of coercive power includes terminating an employment contract for failure to hit performance requirements.
  • Legitimate power: comes from occupying a given position or title in an organizational setting. An example of legitimate power is the CEO position in a company that gives the occupier formal power to manage the company's day-to-day activities.
  • All team members must submit to this authority for the smooth functioning of the organization. In a work environment, upper management tends to have more power, as described in company policy or job responsibility.
  • Expert power: is due to a person's specialized and superior knowledge, skills, or abilities in a given field. Peers highly regard such an individual's input and are inclined to follow them.
  • An example of expert power is a senior developer in the company who is the go-to person when the tech team encounters bugs beyond their capability. This power can wane if the expert fails to show competency repeatedly and followers increase their knowledge.

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What are the Traits of Referent Leaders?

Leaders with inherent referent power show various traits as part of the fundamentals of leadership important for success. Some of the traits that define referent leaders include:

1. Honesty

Honesty is a crucial pillar of referent leadership; it is the best policy.

Once a team understands that honesty is a core pillar of a leader, they will be inclined to be vulnerable to the leader.

Some useful tips for building honesty as one of the personality traits include: being transparent, avoiding double-dealing, and encouraging honesty from anyone; this includes new employees, direct reports, etc.

2. Strong interpersonal skills

Great leaders master interpersonal skills vital in leadership and management. This is because it offers a platform to connect with people meaningfully.

These include active listening, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, Compassion, empathy, self-confidence, negotiation, and conflict management skills.

Some tips for improving interpersonal relationships and skills include: asking for feedback, educating oneself about leadership behaviors, having an accountability partner, and through initiatives such as mentoring and coaching.

3. Open-mindedness

This is particularly important in the modern workplace. Open-mindedness eliminates biases and allows new ideas to flourish as employees feel appreciated. It also eliminates a know-it-all attitude that is a put-off to other team members.

Open-mindedness enhances reverent power by making your subordinates willing to share their thoughts. To get more awareness of open-mindedness, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have biases that I don't know?
  • Do I respect others' beliefs and choices?
  • Do I practice self-reflection?

4. Charisma

There is a direct connection between referent power and charisma. The charismatic leadership style encompasses magnetism, charm, and presence that people admire. This makes it easy to build relationships in a work environment, especially in the business world.

Some tips for growing charisma include: making eye contact while speaking, being fully present, & calling people by their names, among others.

5. Responsibility

Referent leaders take responsibility for their actions. There is an attraction when a leader says: "the bucks stop with me."

This way, other team members learn to decrease counterproductive behavior, enhancing teamwork as the leader has set the pace for everyone.

Some tips for taking responsibility include: owning up when you are wrong, holding team members to account for their actions, respecting opposing views, and stopping blaming others.

6. They keep promises

Promise-based management enhances employee engagement as they know that the leader does not deliver empty words. This not only results in loyal followers but also assists a leader in building referent power.

Some useful tips for keeping promises and gaining referent power include: don't keep promises you can't deliver, become more self-aware, have an accountability partner, and avoid using promises as bait.

7. They ensure employee personal growth

Referent leaders ensure that employees grow personally and professionally. They organize coaching opportunities, sponsor professional certification, celebrate employees' small wins, etc.

Some tips for ensuring personal employee growth include: asking them where they need to improve, providing professional coaching, and creating leadership development plans.

8. They mentor others

Great leaders understand the importance of leadership in moving organizations forward, placing a premium on this endeavor. Moreover, they know the differences between mentoring and coaching and how each plays a role in shaping a leader.

When well done, mentors will leave behind able hands when their time for retirement comes. Some great examples of mentoring in the business world include steve jobs & Mark Zuckerberg and, Warren Buffet & Bill Gates.

9. They act as role models

In addition to mentoring others, referent leaders act as role models. One important aspect of role modeling is matching your words with your behavior.

If your goal is to encourage certain habits, such as accountability in your team, act in a manner that shows accountability. For example, if you commit a mistake, apologize immediately.

This way, you set the pace of what is expected.

10. They delegate and collaborate

Referent leaders delegate and collaborate. They understand that leadership is not all about giving orders.

When a culture of collaboration is enhanced, it reduces bureaucratic procedures, builds teamwork, and enhances chances of similar success across the organization. It builds a spirit of "we are in this together."

Some tips to effectively delegate and collaborate include: empowering employees, mentoring programs, hiring the right people, and taking advantage of team members' skills.

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Why Does Referent Power Matter in the Workplace?

Referent power allows a leader to improve productivity by enhancing teamwork toward a given objective. This is because employees tend to respect and admire such leaders. Moreover, a workplace environment benefits from referent power due to the following:

1. It offers inspiration and motivation

People with referent power can inspire and motivate others to achieve their goals and reach their full potential. They serve as role models and leaders, and their positive image can inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

When inspiration and motivation are achieved in a workplace, it leads to, among others: improved work performance, improved workplace culture, and confidence in leadership.

2. It Increases cooperation and commitment

Team members are more likely to cooperate and be committed to a group or organization when they have a positive relationship with the leader or identify with the leader's ethos.

This way, a leader can utilize referent power in team-building activities, building relationships, and better employee retention.

3. As a catalyst for positive change

Referent power can promote positive change in a workplace. This is because employees feel that their leader connects with and understands them. This creates strong bonds and makes it easy for compliance to change when they are proposed by someone they admire and respect.

4. Promotes non-confrontational influence

Non-confrontational influence is causing desired change without ruffling feathers. This can be achieved by giving clear instructions, managing expectations, giving feedback, active listening, or acting as a role model.

Referent power can be a subtle and less confrontational way to influence employees, as people are more likely to comply with requests or accept advice from referent leadership.

5. It enhances trust

People with referent power are often trusted; their words and actions are seen as credible and trustworthy. This leads to strong referent power that a leader can positively yield in the workplace.

That said, a leader needs to lead by example to gain respect, as erosion in trust can quickly lead to loss of referent power.

6. It enhances employee retention & motivation

A 2015 Gallup poll revealed that up to 75% of employees don't leave their jobs but their managers.

what we can pick from this revealing study is that, If leaders have not mastered using referent power, their employees might look for more engaging leaders to further their careers or increase job satisfaction.

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How to Gain and Use Referent power

In his book leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl argues that one can build referent power by showing concern for the needs of others, and that is more than just flattery, charm, and favor.

He further suggests the following ways to gain and use referent power:

  • Show acceptance and positive regard.
  • Act supportively and helpful.
  • Use sincere forms of ingratiation(the deliberate use of flattery or praise to be likable)
  • Defend and back up people when appropriate.
  • Do unsolicited favors.
  • Make self-sacrifices to show concern.
  • Explain the personal importance of a request

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Referent Power Examples

The following two personalities offer examples of referent power and its impact on their followers:

1. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter

Beyonce is one of the most recognizable pop stars today. A master performer in her own right, she is also a savvy business person. In the course of her career, she has established a legion of fans commonly known as Beyhive, who seemingly are available to defend and promote her work at a moment's notice.

Beyonce has referent power over them.

Her dedication to detail, charisma, aspirational lifestyle, work ethic, and leadership behaviors have enabled her to develop referent power.

2. Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey is a well-known, well-liked personality. She built strong referent power through the Oprah Winfrey Show, which captivated audiences from 1986 to 2011.

Her power as a referent leader came to light through the now-defunct Oprah book club. Many of the books she endorsed became best sellers.

This created the Oprah effect that transcended other spheres of life.

3. An Admired Human Resource Personnel

A leader with a referent power in your organization may be, for example, the head of the human resource department with excellent interpersonal relationships who treats everyone with respect and has admirable qualities.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest soccer players ever. His exploits on the pitch have led to a considerable following and influence. For example, he is the most followed person on Instagram - with over 500 million people.

His referent power is seen whenever he signups up for a new club to play soccer. In December 2022, he signed up for the Saudi Arabia football club, Al-Nassr. A hitherto unknown club outside of Saudi Arabia, the club gained considerable social media following, highlighting the footballer's ability to influence.

We can also see this influence in his goal celebration style, 'siiiiii,' that many young footballers have adopted.

Inspiring, isn’t it ? Want to learn more about connecting self-awareness to professional development? Get in touch today.

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Learn How to Build Strong Referent Power

Understanding referent power and how it relates to your leadership style will assist you in becoming an effective leader in creating strong bonds with your team.

Without coaching or mentoring, this can be difficult. With our leadership development plan, we will show you precisely how to cultivate referent power and be a better leader.

Get in touch with us today and begin understanding referent power at a deeper level.

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Andrew Langat
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Andrew Langat is an experienced content specialist in Leadership, Productivity, Education, Fintech, and Research. He is an avid reader and loves swimming as a hobby. He believes that quality content should be actionable and helpful.