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Building Referent Power to Become a Better Leader

Mike Kulakov, November 12, 2023
building referent power to become a better leader

You have undoubtedly heard of those super-leaders who have this magic power of inspiring their teams in the most challenging projects. Their words can drive their employees onward, even when things aren’t going all that smoothly—the staff look at them with love and adoration. Fellow C-levelers are in awe.

But how to become one of those leaders? The answer is simple — develop your inherent referent power.

Referent power is the type of power that can dramatically change your business and make your team work better. All you need is to reconsider your leadership style and include referent power into your self-improvement schedule. In this article, you’ll uncover:

✅ What is referent power?
✅ Why do you need referent power in your company?
✅ What are some examples of referent power?
✅ The most useful tips on how to develop your referent power.

What Is Referent Power?

When it comes to power in the workplace, a lot of people associate it with formal ranking and obedience. However, John R. P. French and Bertram Raven conducted a survey in 1959 and identified 5 bases of power, aka where power comes from. These are:

  • Referent power
  • Legitimate power
  • Expert power
  • Coercive power
  • Reward power

By defining these bases, French and Raven reveal that “power” is far more than a chain of command. So, then, what is referent power, and how does it work? In the corporate world, the referent power definition boils down to this:

Referent power is the ability of a leader or boss to influence an employee through respect, admiration, influence, or identifying with the leader.

This definition of referent power derives from the idea of soft power. It relies on trust and democracy where a leader influences their followers (or in the workplace subordinates) through admiration and respect. This is recognized by followers. 

Referent power is never a formal type of power as it relies on the personal qualities of the leader. The followers admire these qualities and see the leader as a role model. They look up to him or her. In many situations, they consider what the leader would do in this case.

This type of power works great for those business owners and entrepreneurs who want to build strong collaborative relationships with their colleagues. The referent leadership helps to create an enabling environment at work and boost employees’ morale so that they feel like wanting to do their jobs instead of treating it as an obligation.

For a quick overview of referent power as one of the types of power, and why it’s key to professional communication, take a look at this video below:

What Makes Referent Power So Effective in Leadership?

Referent power is an effective thing for creating a positive atmosphere and improving employees’ working style. But how does it work in practice? Here are 5 reasons why you should use a referent power in your leadership style:

  1. A respected and admired leader inspires their staff to strongly commit to their jobs. They work as a practical model for all the employees by showing an example of how work should really be done in the company.
  2. An encouraging and supportive leader who is ready to back up with tough issues decreases their employees’ anxiety level and minimizes counterproductive behavior. This way, each worker in the company isn’t afraid to approach the leader with a question and can get an answer at any time. 
  3. Workers feel free to share their ideas and vision of a project, which can significantly contribute to its success and result in positive outcomes. With a strong collaborative working style at a company, employees know that they can express their ideas and be heard.
  4. Well-built collaboration reduces bureaucratic procedures in the company and accelerates the workflow between teams and departments. This way, employees realize that their work is about successful results rather than paper procedures and obtaining authoritative permissions.
  5. Referent power has a direct connection to better employee retention. Nobody wants to have an intimidating boss. Gallup survey shows that people tend to resign from bosses and not the companies. 

Referent Power Examples

It might seem surprising, but we quite often run into examples of referent power. The main source of referent power is the world of fame and popularity. For example, having a boss who treats every employee fairly and helps them when they need it. Another example is Dwayne Johnson, also known as The Rock, who inspires his fans to work on themselves – whether in the ring, on film, or simply by being himself.

building referent power to become a better leader

Examplewhether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence.”

George Washington
the first president of the United States

The business world is also full of referent power examples. Elon Musk is a person lots of people admire and many more look up to. All of his followers are proud to work with him and share their interests in technology and Mars travels. His leadership style inspires and pushes his team to make new creations.

Another great example is Bill Gates, a software developer and philanthropist who encourages people to launch the most outrageous startups or donate money to charity. And as we all know, his Microsoft corporation has been a game-changer in the world of computing.

Referent power in the workplace

Below are some examples of how referent power works in practice.

✔️ As a leader you fulfill your promises

Why this works: By showing yourself as reliable, you create a stable work environment where your team knows that what you say will happen, will happen. Whether this following up on a task, project, or even an employee review. 
Effect on your team: From your example, they are more likely to follow up on tasks or promises they make to others as you have set workplace culture.

✔️ As a leader you lead by example

Why this works: It’s one thing to say to do something. It’s another to actually do it. If you want your team to adopt certain habits or practices, you need to do them yourself. For example, this may be participating in team building.
Effect on your team: You show yourself as someone who isn’t “all-talk” and gain respect.

✔️ As a leader you are open to new ideas

Why this works: Think you always have the best ideas? Think again. Being open to what your team tells you is one of the best ways to advance. After all, you can’t think of everything.
Effect on your team: By showing you listen to your team, they will feel more able to express their ideas and take ownership over their work.

How to Harness Referent Leadership Power?

So, how to be an effective leader and utilize referent power? The good news is that you can build it in yourself. Here are some useful tips that help you to lead your employees with referent power.

Keep your promises 💪

There is nothing more off-putting than unfulfilled promises. If you say that you’ll take care of something or have a look into a problem, don’t put it in a drawer till better times. Promptly addressing your employees’ problems and getting really involved in helping to solve them is a sure way to gain respect. 

On the other hand, this can have a detrimental effect when your employees start referring to you even with minor issues. To avoid this, you should learn how to evaluate the occurring problems quickly and consider them well before saying your ‘yes.’ 

Lifehack: Try to solve problems WITH your staff and not FOR them. 

Follow the rules you set 👆

Great leaders not only know what is right to do for others but also follow the formulated rules. If you want to boost your employees’ productivity by banning the use of social networking sites, then don’t use them at work either. Put yourself in an equal position with your workers and lead them by example.

Remember that if your employees are not ready to do something, they are very likely not to. Therefore, it’s essential to set rules and discuss with your staff why it’s important. Moreover, if you deprive your employees of Facebook during working hours, there are always some more effective ways of how to organize their breaks and enhance productivity.

Lifehack: To set fair rules that will work both for your business and your employees, establish informal meetings for discussing rules and policies in your company. Let your employees speak out in a relaxed environment and be ready to listen. 

Complimenting never hurts 🗣

When your team finishes a project successfully or finds a smart way to resolve a long-pending issue, it’s vital that you recognize and celebrate the success with them. Why? If your employees feel unappreciated, they may end up resigning in the long term. 

A recent 200,000 person study shows that 79% of employees tend to quit due to a lack of appreciation of what they do. Therefore, besides constantly highlighting areas of improvement for your staff, mark their achievements as well. You can do it by evaluating their work in a positive spirit or just throwing a thank-you party after a hard day. 

Lifehack: Compliment your employees in front of other workers, though discuss their blunders in private. This way, you’ll help them to feel valued and respected in the company.

Get to know your employees 🤝

Referent power is about being sincerely interested in your employees. This means getting to know your employees and caring about what makes them tick.

A little small talk about their weekend or family can go a long way to forging a deeper relationship that will inspire your team to work harder. That way, they’ll be more likely to tell you when they are experiencing issues that may affect their work so that you can solve them together.

Lifehack: Value the person, not just the role. 

Involve active listening 👂

Practicing active listening will help you build strong referent power. Though it might seem easy, in reality, to listen and comprehend what your employees are really trying to say is a great skill. It’ll help you to better understand what issues your staff is dealing with in their work and what they need to successfully fulfill their tasks. For this, you need to:

  • Stop multitasking and put aside all the gadgets when you are talking with your workers
  • Maintain eye contact to make it clear that you have your full attention on the issue at hand
  • Use verbal and non-verbal messages to prove that you’re listening, such as smiling, nodding your head, saying ‘Yes,’ or reformulating the statements to better understand your opponent. 

Lifehack: These techniques assure your employees that you are really involved with their issues and ready to help, making them trust you more.

Fight for your employees 🙌

The main quality of a mature leader is the ability to bear responsibility for the mistakes of their employees. You should be ready to stand up for your workers in conflict situations instead of shifting the blame on them in front of your customers. After all, you’re responsible for each employee you hire.

You will always have some time later to consider the issues that lead to a particular problem and create a plan on how to improve the situation. This attitude requires a sensible approach and shows you as a wise leader in the eyes of your colleagues. 

Lifehack: If your employees have to work in a stressful environment, give them a chance to unwind by devoting one day to relaxing and team-building time management games

Keep an open mind 🧠

Leaders with referent power realize that they can’t be professionals in every field. They are ready to follow their employees’ expert advice and admit that it if their ideas appear to be not as great as expected. 

Discussing your views and opinions with your employees is the most important contribution you can make to your business development. Brainstorm your employees and decide which suggestions you want to put into effect. It’ll prove that you’re ready to hear your staff’s ideas and encourage them to come up with the best ones. 

Lifehack: Make sure you give your employees plenty of opportunities to improve their group decision-making skills that are essential for effective decision-making and brainstorming new ideas.

Referent Power Wrap Up

Becoming a role model for your employees requires lots of hard work though it pays off well in the long term. Here we recap what you need to do to become a more respected and trusted leader:

  • Keep your promises
  • Follow the rules you set
  • Praise your employees’ work
  • Get to know your employees
  • Involve active listening
  • Fight for your employees
  • Keep your mind open

We, at Everhour, hope that you’ve learned how to become an effective leader, and now you’ll inspire your teams for even more productive work and achievements!

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Featured image: IndustryWeek

Mike Kulakov

Mike Kulakov

IT entrepreneur, executive and a former engineer. Responsible for company growth as well as the team’s motivation. Big fan of playing tennis, snowboarding, traveling, reading books, and (of course) I live and breathe our product.