An explainer on what referent power is and how it can help you be a more effective leader for your team.
Picture this: You always follow your boss’ directions to a T. Why? Well, because you have to. They’re ranked above you on the proverbial ladder, and it’s quite literally your job to meet their every demand.
Now, take a moment to imagine this scenario: You take your manager’s feedback and directions to heart because you admire them. You trust them to be honest with you, to prioritize your best interests, and to always act with integrity.
Sure, maybe they’re placed above you on the organizational chart, but that’s not why you follow their lead—you do so because you want to.
Which of those leaders would you rather work under? We know it’s an easy question—the second leader is obviously way more likely to inspire faith and trust in his or her direct reports.
That’s the very concept of referent power at work, and if you’re currently in a leadership position, it’s something you should know about to effectively lead your team.
Unfamiliar with what referent power is? Let’s dig into everything you need to know about this leadership secret weapon.
What is Referent Power?
As a post from Expert Program Management succinctly explains, referent power is a leader’s ability to influence a follower because of the follower’s respect, admiration, and personal identification with the leader.
Referent power is one of the five types of power defined by psychologists Bertram Raven and John R. P. French in 1959. Those types of power include:
- Coercive: Power is rooted in the ability to reprimand someone else.
- Reward: Power is rooted in the ability to provide perks and rewards.
- Legitimate: Power is rooted in a person’s formal rank or position.
- Expert: Power is rooted in the person’s knowledge and experience.
- Referent: Power is rooted in trust, respect, and admiration.
Those five different types of power can be split into two categories: position power (where the power comes from hierarchy) and personal power (where the power comes from characteristics of the leader).
Needless to say, referent power falls into the personal category. Some of this can start to feel highly-academic and sort of confusing, so think about it this way: Referent leaders lead their teams by example.
Followers not only respect their leaders, they desire to be like them. So, when faced with a choice or situation, they’ll think about how their managers would handle it (ahem, refer to their leader’s previous advice and actions) and address those circumstances in that same way.
What Makes Referent Power So Awesome?
At this point, you’re probably picking up on the fact that referent power can be pretty powerful when it comes to inspiring and managing teams. But, what exactly makes this type of power so superior?
To put it concisely, referent power “can lead to enthusiastic and unquestioning trust, compliance, loyalty, and commitment from subordinates” explains an article authored by Angela M. Jones and Sheri L. York that was published in The Journal of Values-Based Leadership.
Pretty great stuff, right? But, let’s break this down even further into a few key advantages of referent power.
First and foremost, leading with referent power gives a big boost to office morale. Because leaders who lean on referent power are leading by example (as opposed to just doling out instructions and reprimands), they have no choice but to always act with integrity. That sets a solid example for the whole organization—and not just the team that leader manages.
Secondly, referent power leads to more positive and trusting relationships in the workplace. Remember, leaders who use referent power lead through respect rather than fear. As a result, direct reports feel that their leaders are qualified, approachable, and supportive—rather than intimidating. That means they’re willing to come to them with questions, feedback, and problems.
Last but not least, referent power can be directly linked to improved employee retention. Gallup research shows that people leave bosses and not necessarily organizations. In fact, one in two employees have left a job to get away from a manager. So, better-respected leaders means improved retention for the company as a whole.
Building Referent Power: 7 Tips to Be a More Respected Leader
Are you singing the praises of referent power? We can’t blame you.
But, now there’s one more big question you need answered: How do you build referent power for yourself? As a manager, how do you become more admired and respected so that your employees follow your lead because they want to—not just because they have to.
1. Always follow through.
Whether it’s a manager or an employee, there’s really nothing worse than someone who says they’re going to get something taken care of and then promptly lets that task slide off their to-do list (and eventually off their radar entirely).
If you want to be trusted and respected, you need to follow through on your promises and do what you say you’re going to do when you’re supposed to do it. When 63% of employees reportedly don’t trust their leaders, it takes more than lip service to inspire confidence. It requires action.
When you do drop the ball on something (because, trust us, it will happen), be transparent about your shortcomings or mistakes and describe the steps you’ll take to patch things up. Don’t be the leader who sweeps things under the rug in a futile attempt to save face.
2. Practice what you preach.
Here’s something that’s worth some extra emphasis: The best leaders don’t expect employees to do something that they’re not willing to do themselves. Doing so breeds an atmosphere of resentment and superiority. Remember, your goal is to lead by example.
Just think about it: Telling your employees, “We shouldn’t be using work time for personal projects” probably is going to come off as extra condescending (not to mention totally ridiculous) if your direct reports are constantly finding you perusing Facebook or working on your screenplay during working hours.
Don’t fall into the common leadership trap of, “Do as I say, and not as I do.” Referent power requires that you walk the walk, and don’t just talk the talk.
3. Praise, compliment, and celebrate (often!).
Do you know what makes us admire someone that much more? When they’re vocal and upfront about admiring others—particularly if that admiration is directed our way.
Leaders who have referent power make it a point to recognize and celebrate the successes of their employees. They don’t let hard work and positive results go unnoticed.
When 79% of employees quit their jobs because they feel totally unappreciated, making that extra effort to applaud accomplishments—rather than always highlighting areas of improvement—will go a long way in fostering trust and admiration among your employees.
4. Learn about your employees outside of the office.
Building referent power is all about establishing trust and inspiring your employees to identify with you. But, reaching that level with your employees is challenging if you repeatedly treat them like another cog in the wheel.
To establish referent power, your relationship with your direct reports needs to extend beyond clocking in and clocking out each day—and even beyond just work-related matters.
Ask them about their families, their weekends, their hobbies, or their vacation plans. Get to know who they are when they check out of the office each and every day, so you can start to forge a more solid bond with them.
The key here? Actually retain the tidbits they share with you. Asking follow up questions about them or bringing them back up at a later date shows that you’re truly invested in who your employees are—both inside and outside of the office.
5. Listen (really listen).
This might seem easy enough. But, you’d be surprised by how many leaders don’t actually listen to their employees. In many ways, they make their direct reports feel like a nuisance—like their needs and questions are putting a crimp in an already-hectic schedule.
That approach will ensure that your employees view you as unapproachable. So, put your phone down. Maintain eye contact. Avoid distractions and stay solely focused on what your direct reports share with you—whether it’s updates, feedback, problems, or questions.
It’s a seemingly small change that can go a long way in encouraging trust and respect among your team.
6. Be invested in the success of your employees.
It’s natural—all of us want to feel as if our leaders have our backs. We want to know that they’ll be our unwavering advocates and champions for our career growth.
To do so, you need to be highly invested in your employees. If you haven’t already, schedule regular one-on-ones with your direct reports when you can connect on their challenges and their goals.
Beyond that? Well, refer back to the step about “following through” and ensure you hash out a plan to actually help them achieve success with their objectives.
Ultimately, there’s no better way to inspire trust than by proving time and time again that you’re always in their corner.
7. Keep an open mind.
One more way to help your direct reports trust you and respect you? Approach every encounter with an open mind.
Do they have an idea for a different way to approach a problem? A unique perspective or opinion? A suggestion that might seem a little off the wall at first glance? A piece of criticism that might be a little hard to hear?
Take a deep breath and hear them out. You won’t get far by repeatedly shutting them down and going your own way regardless of what they think about it.
Does this mean you need to implement everything they suggest? Absolutely not. However, you at least need to give them a chance to explain their thinking. Taking that time to actively listen (remember how important that is?) will prove that you’re open to at least hearing their ideas.
Referent Power Can Make You a Better Leader
Becoming a more effective and well-respected leader isn’t easy, but taking steps to build some referent power can help. To recap, here are seven strategies to start inspiring more trust and respect among your team members:
- Always follow through
- Practice what you preach
- Praise, compliment, and celebrate
- Learn about your employees outside of the office
- Actively listen to your employees
- Be invested in your employees’ success
- Keep an open mind
Finally, remember that this isn’t only about being likable. There will still be times when you need to deliver hard news or critical feedback.
Instead, referent power all comes back to conducting yourself in a way that you can be proud of. You’re setting an example for your team to follow, so you need to make sure that it’s a good one.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.