5 ways project managers use power

Michelle LaBrosse
August 26, 2013

Have you ever looked at someone in power and wondered: ‘how did they get there?’ Is there some special power gene that makes certain people rise to the top of the power hierarchy, but not others?

In a popular study in 1959, social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven identified five types of power: legitimate, reward, expert, referent, and coercive.

Throughout our careers as project managers, we wear many hats, and therefore, we use different types of power. Sometimes we come into a project as an expert in a particular field (expert power). At other times, we have the ability to give or deny resources for a project (reward and coercive power). If you’re named the project manager on a project, this very title brings you a form a power (legitimate power). And when we have no formal sources of power, we have to rely on our likability factor and ability to influence others (referent power).

Let’s take a moment to delve a little further into each source of power and how you can use each, no matter where you are in your career.

1. Legitimate power
This type of power comes from the belief that a person has a formal right to make demands. For example, a CFO has legitimate power over an intern working for them, as they are higher in the organisational ranks.

While we can’t always choose our titles and organisational hierarchy in our workplaces, we can choose the kind of project management post-nominals we want after our name (PMP, PMI-ACP, CAPM, to name a few).

We polled 70 Cheetah Learning PMPs with various levels of experience, and asked them how earning a PMP (and gaining legitimate power) had changed their career. Here is what we found:

  • Enhanced reputation within project management community (21%)
  • Promoted within current organisation (17%)
  • Obtained a new job (16%)

These letters after your name give you legitimate power that translates to real career improvements.

2. Reward power
This type of power comes from the ability to reward/compensate another person. Let’s say you have the resources that a project team needs. In the past, you typically provided the resources with no questions asked, and when the project team says, “thank you,” and you say, “no problem.” Now, what is the problem here?

According the Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, the time when someone says “thank you” as a reward for something you’ve done is the crucial moment at which you have power. And here is how you can grab that power: instead of saying, “no problem” you can say, “of course, I know that you would do the same for me.” This small change in semantics enforces the rule of reciprocity, and gives you power in future dealings with this party, as now they owe you one.

3. Expert power
This type of power is based on a person’s superior skill or knowledge in a certain area of expertise. In what areas are you an expert? If you can’t recognise it, think to what people ask you to help with most often. Maybe it’s helping to negotiate a contract or to do a risk analysis.

Ask others what areas they think you excel in, and if you also enjoy doing these activities, you are well on your way to becoming an expert in that area. No matter what skill/area you ultimately choose, deliberately practice becoming better to develop the area(s) of expertise, and you will experience more power.

4. Referent power
This type of power deals with your likability factor. If you think going out to lunch with your co-workers and attending company-sponsored events is a waste of time, think again. The relationships and bonds that you build with your work associates can result in real power. People would rather work with people that they know and like than those that they don’t know and don’t care for.

For this reason, networking can bring you power as well. The more you network outside your immediate circle of friends and coworkers, the more opportunities (and power) you will find as a result of these connections. Take inventory of your likability factor and work to improve it by having more meaningful connections with your close peers as well as broader connections throughout your industry.

5. Coercive power

This type of power comes from the belief that one can punish another in order to achieve compliance from them. This is usually tied to legitimate power. For example, a boss has the authority to reprimand an employee for not complying with a request. However, this type of power can also be tied to reward/expert power if you have information/skills that could help someone, but by withholding this help, you are, in effect, punishing them.

While you may want to use this power sparingly (or else risk losing referent power), it can only help you if you recognise when the opportunity exists to use coercive power, and go from there.

The next time you feel powerless, stop and think: what do I have control of in this situation? Chances are, it is a lot more than you originally thought. May the power be with you!

Co-authored with Kristen Medina

Author avatar
Michelle LaBrosse
Michelle LaBrosse (PMP) is one of the Project Management Institute's (PMI) 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World and the founder of Cheetah Learning, a former PMI Professional Development Provider of the Year. She boasts a background in engineering and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program, as well as a prolific writer and educator, having authored Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, Cheetah Know How and Cheetah Exam Prep as well as numerous articles in publications worldwide.
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