Social power is the ability to influence other people. Many thinkers have sought the source of this power: perhaps the most successful were John French and Bertram Raven. Their study of social power is valuable to us in understanding the power dynamics of organisational life.

Seven sources of social power

French and Raven identified seven categories of power, referring to them as Power Bases. They are often divided into two groups: positional power, flowing from the status granted to us; and personal power, which we earn by our endeavours.


Legitimate Power

… is the epitome of positional power, arising from the authority of your place in a hierarchy. It depends upon people’s willingness to defer to seniority.

Coercive Power

… is based on fear – the ability to impose your will by threat of sanction. Its counterpart is:

Reward Power

… stems from the inducements or rewards you can offer.

Referent Power

… is the influence you exert through personal relationships, charisma and likeability. It is about who you are and the choices you make in your dealings with people, and can be wielded with or without integrity.

Expert Power

… is gained by virtue of the knowledge and skills we have developed through study, practice and experience. This gives you an authority that often commands great respect. You must, of course, continue to invest if you want to maintain this power base.

Connection Power

… comes through networking – being able to use your links to other influential people to support your own, more direct, power. Of course, we may not have much of our own power to supplement- in which case, this becomes little more than reflected glory.

Information Power

… is the power we have stemming from our access to information.

Resource Power

Neither Information nor Connection Power satisfactorily account for the power that certain ‘gatekeepers’ have in organisations; to control our access to wider resources: funds, equipment, supplies, etc. These are often middle-ranking, junior or administrative colleagues with little legitimate power, so wield Resource Power as a proxy, to meet their need for control in their workplace. Resource Power is missing from the original work.


The criticisms levelled at power bases are two-fold. Firstly, they are seen as arbitrary and under-researched. On the other hand, they do explain and even predict behaviours. My solution is to adapt the model to your needs and those of your learners, allowing them to evaluate the power bases in the context of their own experiences.

The second critique is more philosophical: the strength (and therefore validity) of the positional power bases is greatly diminished in modern times. Indeed, the value of Information Power is eroded by the ready access to information afforded by the internet.

It was ever so. Look back at history and you will find cultures and times which experienced an information revolution. And periods and places where positional power reigned supreme, only to be challenged by individuals with uncommon personal power, who were ready to use it in opposition to the established hierarchy. Hear hear.

Read More about Power Bases in Brilliant Influence, or, if you can�t wait, there is a chapter devoted to this in The Management Models Pocketbook.

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