Imagine a scenario where you follow all the commands and instructions of your boss because well, there is no other way to go about it. They are above you in the organizational hierarchy and it is your duty to meet their demands.

Now, let’s imagine another situation where you admire your boss for their honesty, nature, and trust in you. You take their feedback seriously because you know that it is in the company’s best interest, not theirs.

Who are you more likely to work for? Of course, the second one. Anyone would.

Why? Because such leaders are more likely to gain their subordinates’ trust and loyalty.

The question is how are these leaders what they are? This is where the concept of referent power comes in. It is especially important for employees who are in leadership positions.

So if you’re looking to effectively lead and manage your team, you need to get your hands deep into this concept.

This piece is going to equip you with all you need to know about referent power. Let’s first begin with understanding what referent power is.

What Is Referent Power?

Referent power is the ability to influence someone because they respect and admire the influencer in every way. Among the five types of power, referent power is closely associated with successful leadership. For context, the other four types are:

  • Coercive: The ability to command and reprimand others
  • Reward: The power stems from the ability to reward others
  • Legitimate: The person’s formal rank and position signifies power
  • Expert: The ability to hold power because of knowledge and expertise

These five types of power can be categorized into two types: position power and personal power.

You may have guessed by now that referent power undoubtedly falls in the second category. Why?

Because referent leaders lead by example not by coercion. Let’s explore some more aspects of referent power.

What Makes Referent Power Superior?

Referent leadership is about leading by example and inspiring trust in people. But, what makes it so superior? Referent leaders have the ability to get their subordinates to comply, trust and work with commitment and loyalty.

Let’s discuss this in terms of the advantages of referent power:

Boosts Office Morale

Leaders who lean on referent power are morale boosters of a workplace. Because they lead by example and act with integrity, referent leaders do not roll out instructions and reprimand their subordinates. They are looked up to by everyone in the organization and not just their team members.

Nurtures Trusting Relationships

Leaders who lead with referent power are seen as more approachable by employees because they lead with respect and not fear. Consequently, the direct reports willingly approach them for advice, suggestions, and feedback.

Improves Employee Retention

An organization that has better-respected leaders has high retention rates. This is because sometimes people leave their jobs because of their managers. An employee who feels intimidated by their leaders leave sooner or later because they don’t see themselves learning or growing under such bosses.

Disadvantages of Referent Power

Although referent power does wonders for an organization, there are a few aspects to watch out for.

  • Referent power may not have a strong impact on companies with a strong organizational culture. If a different form of behavior is a norm in the company then it may be difficult for a referent leader to get things done. For instance, if the culture does not foster employee appreciation, then it may be challenging for referent leaders to model it.
  • The more the hierarchical layers in an organization, the harder it will be for the referent power to reach the bottom of the hierarchy. This is because referent leaders will be too high on the organizational ladder to display their behavior in front of people right at the lower rungs. Consequently, there will be a lot of inconsistency in the company.
  • Referent power takes time to develop. So if an organization has a high turnover, then it may be a challenge to make referent power work.
  • It also doesn’t work well in a crisis. If a business is failing and has to be turned around as fast as possible then there isn’t much time to build trust that referent power requires.

How to Build Referent Power in Leaders?

Now, that you know the importance of referent power, it is time to learn how to build one in leaders and managers. As a leader, you would want people to follow you because they want to and not have to. Try the tips below and see if they work for you.

Preach Only What You Practice

The key to having referent power is: Lead by example, not by fear.

As a leader, preach only what you believe in and practice. Don’t talk about things that you personally don’t do. This will only tarnish your reputation and will earn you zero respect. Employees are going to resent you and will eventually stop being influenced by you.

For example, if you tell your team that they should not be using office hours for personal projects, then you should be the first one to abide by it. If moments later, your subordinates find you browsing through your Facebook feed, then you have lost all their trust.

Avoid falling into the common leadership trap of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’

Follow Through With Your Promises

A person is trusted if they do as they promised. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, if you have promised to take care of something, then you must do so to earn people’s trust and respect. If you don’t, well then you know that the opposite is going to happen.

Just giving our word isn’t sufficient. You have to prove your worth through your actions.

As a human, we do and will continue to make mistakes. And there is no harm in that. As a leader, if you fail at something, keep it transparent with your team. Let them know about your mistakes and shortcomings and how you will fix them. Sweeping these issues under the rug will only make you unpopular among them. So, better to face it and own it.

Celebrate Employee Success

Referent leadership is all about employee positivity and hard work. As a leader with referent power, you should always admire and appreciate your employees for all the big and small efforts they do. Make sure their accomplishments are applauded. You will of course highlight their areas of improvement, but appreciation for things done right is equally important.

Interact With Your Team Outside Work

To have your employees identify with you, you must make an effort to interact with them outside work as well. Try to learn about them, their hobbies and interests, vacation plans, and even families. This will help you establish stronger bonds with them.

Your work doesn’t end here. You must follow up with them. Ask about the recent soccer match if that is where their interest lies. This will display how invested you are in knowing them both personally and professionally.

Referent Power


Listen and listen attentively. This may sound easy but to be able to focus on someone is a challenge that many leaders struggle with.

So whenever, an employee walks into your office, keep your phone aside and leave your screen. Maintain eye contact and really listen to what they have to say. Whether your direct reports share feedback, updates problems, or questions, give them your 100% attention.

If you make them feel like they are a distraction in your already swamped-up day, you’re only pushing them away. Eventually, they will stop approaching you.

Invest in Your Employees

All employees want their leaders to support them in their career growth. If you say to your direct reports that you have their back, you should really mean it. Schedule one-on-one meetings with your direct reports and stay updated on their challenges and future goals.

Help them come up with a plan to achieve their goals and referring back to point number 2, keep following through. Simply put, there is no better way of inspiring trust and loyalty in your direct reports than proving to them that you’re always a step away to help.

Be Open to Ideas

A referent leader should never have an ‘I know it all’ approach. They should be open to unique, innovative, and creative ideas. They should approach every encounter with an open mind.

Your subordinates may not always agree with your perspective or approach.  And that is okay. In fact, it is healthy to have employees come up with their unique viewpoints. This is because it signifies that they are invested in their work.

Moreover, their unique approach to solving a problem may prove to be beneficial for the company.

This obviously doesn’t mean that you have to implement everything that they suggest. But, repeatedly shutting them down won’t help either. All you have to ensure is that you listen to their ideas and suggestions actively and make a conscious decision of implementing them or not.

Referent Power

Hold People Accountable

Referent leaders are fair and just with employees. Therefore, you need to ensure that you hold people accountable for their actions. This is also good for a company’s culture. It instills a sense of responsibility in employees and enables them to work mindfully.

Examples of Referent Power in the Workplace

In the workplace, leaders have the opportunity to gain referent power based on their personality and actions. Below are a few fictional examples of referent power in the workplace:

  1. Jane works as an editor for a magazine. She arranges one-on-one mentoring sessions with her team of writers and journalists and always encourages them to reach out to her in case they need any kind of help. She always shows up at work with a positive attitude and the executive team has noticed how she has brought about a marked improvement in her team’s performance.
  2. Richard works as an advertising manager for a company. Recently, there have been two new hires in his department. The two new members made few mistakes in their initial weeks but Richard made sure to not let them feel down or bad about it. He defends their actions because they are new to work and are still learning the workflow. Richard spends enough time with them to ensure that they understand their role well. He follows an open door policy and encourages them to come to him in case of any problem. Everyone in his team admires how approachable he is.
  3. Noah is the founder of an HR software company. He is planning to introduce some new features to the product. But he believes in the importance of knowing his employees’ feedback. So, he shares his plans with the team and asks for their advice, suggestions, and feedback. He is also open to accepting new and unique features that could make the product even better. His employees respect and admire him for his openness and welcoming behavior. As a result, everyone in his company gives their best and works with increased morale and motivation.
  4. Jennifer is an HR manager. A part of her role, she formulates HR policies, arranges training sessions and networking events for the company. Apart from that, she also makes an extra effort in arranging employee appreciation programs. She believes that employees need to be appreciated for their efforts regardless of how big or small. She also believes that employees should be appreciated for non-work-related stuff such as hobbies, interests, and personality. Therefore, she puts in extra effort to come up with funny employee awards to add some fun and humor to the culture.

Ready to Influence People With Referent Power?

It is evident that the challenging and competitive business environments we are living in demands employees to work as hard as possible. Because of this, managers and leaders tend to ignore the best management practices. They mostly focus on getting the job done and do not invest much time in inspiring trust in their people. Their focus is mostly on failures rather than successes.

But, remember that leaders do not have to be bullies to get their job done. True leaders deploy a range of powerful tactics to influence and inspire people-referent power is one of them.