Types of Power

Types of Power

While the PMBOK® does not provide a specific definition of power, it alludes to power as a level of authority.  From a project manager perspective, power is the authority and ability to get things done.    Knowing the different types of power in project management, and knowing how and when to use them, can be crucial to managing projects successfully.  For the PMP® exam, it is important to know the following 5 types of power:

  • Legitimate – also known as “formal” power.  This is the power that comes from holding a title or a position of power.  The CEO or president of a company has legitimate power.  An individual with the title of “Project Manager” also has legitimate power although, as you should know, this title may not have as much power in a functional organization where most of the legitimate power is held by functional managers.
  • Coercive – this is fear based power.  An individual with coercive power has the power to inflict punishment or take away benefits.  A drill sergeant in the military uses coercive power to train new recruits.  A Theory X manager would rely heavily on coercive power to get things done in his or her organization.
  • Reward – this type of power is the ability to award something of value or benefit.  This may or may not involve monetary compensation.  Opportunities for advancement or promotion and recognition are also rewards.  Reward power is about giving people what they desire so that you can ask them to do something in return. For this to work, the person must believe that the offer of reward is genuine, that the reward is worth enduring the pain of performing the task, and of course, they must believe that they can accomplish the task.
  • Expert – this type of power is based on the special skill or knowledge of the individual providing leadership to the team, whether informally or formally.  Project managers should strive to develop this type of power but should also recognize when individual members of the team hold expert power informally.  In the situation where an individual team member holds expert power, the project manager should find ways to encourage and embrace that power.
  • Referent – this type of power comes from being well liked or respected.  This type of power may come from the desire of others to be like the leader holding this type of power.      

 Another type of power usually not included with the above is “representative power.”  Representative power is power that comes from being appointed or elected to lead the group by the group itself.  This power is different that formal power because it may not be formally recognized.  In project management, a project manager may not hold representative power.

What type of power is the best type of power to have?  The answer, of course, is: “it depends.”  Generally, having expert power or reward power provides more influence over a team.

Eddie Merla, PMI-ACP, PMP



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