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6 Ways to Build Referent Power as a Leader

Photo by Fakurian Design

Bad leadership can seriously damage your workplace. One study found that nearly 50 % of employees working under an uninspiring leader consider quitting their jobs.

Influence in the workplace is crucial to having a well-managed workforce, which leads to a successful enterprise. Cultivating a collaborative culture requires leaders who are savvy in how they gain influence over their teams. Organizations that build up leaders who attract respect and admiration will find themselves with more engaged, loyal, and satisfied employees at work.

This type of leader uses referent power to gain influence over their team. Referent leaders are great at inspiring others and managing those under them.

This article will outline what referent power is and why all leaders need it. We’ll also outline six ways leaders can begin developing their capacity for referent power. Let’s begin.

What Is Referent Power?

Referent power is a type of power leaders have based on admiration, respect, and trust. It is one of the five types of power that psychologists Bertram Raven and John R.P. French defined through their research:

  1. Coercive — power is gained over someone because the leader can punish that individual.
  2. Reward — leaders gain power over their team by offering rewards or perks for cooperation.
  3. Legitimate — power in this sense comes from the leader’s position in the organization.
  4. Expert — a leader gains power or influence because of their mastery over a subject.
  5. Referent — leading others through admiration, respect, and trust.

Those who wield their influence through referent power possess interpersonal skills that make them empathetic to their teams and more enjoyable to work with.

When challenges come, referent leaders inspire loyalty in their teams to support their leaders in overcoming whatever they’re facing. Individuals that display referent powers are great role models for leaders everywhere to aspire toward.

There are significant advantages to having referent leaders. They:

  • Support collaborative workplace environments
  • Develop meaningful team relationships
  • Inspire commitment from team members
  • Experience fewer negative work habits on their teams
  • Have higher levels of job satisfaction among their teams

Developing a leadership style that utilizes referent power can take some time. These individuals often need to demonstrate good role model behavior over time to show their team what behaviors they expect.

How Leaders Can Develop Referent Power

Referent power is by far the most effective way for leaders in the 21st century to lead. Our work environments require more collaboration and trust to run effectively. For that reason, giving demands to employees through coercion or because of your position won’t work in the long term. Instead, referent power is a skill all leaders need to cultivate.

Here are six ways leaders can develop referent power:

1. Mentor others

Mentors wield a significant amount of influence over their mentees. But this influence is earned as mentees see their mentor as a role model and source of trusted advice or guidance. For leaders who want to develop their capacity for referent power, becoming a mentor is an excellent way to build trust with their mentees.

By mentoring others, leaders can develop leadership skills such as communication, constructive feedback, and building connections. All these interpersonal skills are necessary parts of referent power. Consider some of these great mentoring pairings:

• Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg

What may seem an unlikely mentoring relationship is one between Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Although they were competitors in a sense, their respect for each other became evident when Zuckerberg paid tribute to Jobs after his passing.

• Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou

When Oprah was just starting her career, she would go to Maya Angelou for advice on building relationships and trust with others. The relationship between them and the advice Oprah received stuck with her throughout her career. Oprah Winfrey recalls the most influential piece of advice she received from Maya Angelou was that actions speak louder than words and not to take a person on who they say they are, but how they act toward you.

Both Steve Jobs and Maya Angelou’s influence come from referent power. They were role models and built relationships with their mentees, which added credibility to their advice and guidance.

2. Follow through on your commitments and promises

Leaders with referent power are trusted. And the best way to build trust is through consistently following through on what you say you’ll do. This will inspire the same reliability in your team as you’ve set the standard. For example, if an employee raises a concern and you promise to look into it for them, following through will earn their respect.

Another way to follow through on your commitments and promises is to remember the goals and ambitions of the individuals you lead. What do they want out of their careers or roles? What do they want to experience or accomplish? How can you help them achieve those goals? Supporting your employees by connecting them with the resources they need or encouraging them to pursue their goals will show them that you care about them.

3. Be a role model (lead by example)

Practice what you preach. You earn referent power when you don’t simply tell others what they should do but demonstrate it by doing it yourself. It means holding yourself to higher standards of timeliness, responsiveness, thoroughness, and a strong work ethic. When employees see that you are working alongside them, they’ll be more inclined to respect your ideas and direction.

Being a role model is easier said than done as competing priorities and stakeholders pull leaders in many different directions. They have obligations to their teams but also to higher-ups or outside investors. Throughout all of this, teams watch their leaders to see how they react when a challenge arises. They’ll make a note of when a leader stumbles or responds irrationally. They want to know what kind of leader they are and if their leader is trustworthy. It’s hard to fake it as a leader.

Leaders that are role models, however, don’t seek to be infallible but empathetic. They’re honest with their teams and show their scars. Building empathy with your followers will help them see themselves in you and be inspired. Nobody can be as indestructible as Superman. Your teams want to see themselves in you, and there’s no better way to do that than to meet them at their level and be real with them. That’s what a good role model and referent leader does.

4. Show recognition and praise

Giving credit where credit is due will win people over quickly.

Consider the alternative — they’ll quickly become unmotivated if you don’t offer your team recognition for a job well done. Why would employees put in the extra effort if their leaders don’t appreciate them for it? Unmotivated employees often find work somewhere else. One study found that 79 % of employees who leave do so because they feel unappreciated.

Leaders who want to develop referent power need to acknowledge their team’s work. Rarely should a leader take credit for themselves, but should feel obligated to pass it onto their team. These leaders recognize that their position as leaders depends on those they lead and how successful they are.

What are some ways to show recognition to your teams?

  • Provide gifts to teams when they go above and beyond as a “thank you.” It can be as small as a card or a big as an all-expense-paid trip.
  • Publicly recognize individuals for their contributions or exemplary qualities. Genuine praise is an inexpensive way to inspire loyalty.
  • Solicit, listen and respond to their feedback. Leaders who are open to learning and taking feedback will encourage open communication.

Showing praise and recognition goes hand-in-hand with active listening.

5. Practice active listening

Leaders need to listen to those they lead. They need to make it clear that they are open to hearing feedback, constructive criticism, or listening empathetically to their teams’ challenges. Leaders can only develop referent power when employees trust that their leaders have their best interests in mind.

While it seems simple to employ active listening, it is a skill that you’ll need to hone. Practice listening to what employees are saying and understand what they are trying to say. Repeat back to them what you heard and make sure you both understand each other. Doing this will help you better understand the challenges they face and how you can help them overcome obstacles.

To develop the skill of active listening, give your employee your full attention. Turn devices off. Keep eye contact while your employee is talking. Use cues to let them know you are listening. For example, nodding your head and repeating back to them what they tell you.

6. Be open to new ideas and perspectives

Referent leaders are open to new ideas.

They know how to collaborate and encourage others to work together. It requires developing diplomatic skills like the ability to know when and how to compromise.

Listening to other ideas creates an atmosphere where your team will feel more comfortable sharing ideas with you. They will also be more willing to take ownership of their work and go the extra mile.

Take, for example, Google’s 20% policy. They allow employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects they’ve come up with on their own. This is a company-wide policy that shows that Google is open to new ideas and perspectives.

Real Leaders Harness Referent Power

Leadership based on any other power besides referent power can be destructive and cause employees to leave your organization. Those who use referent power get the best results and have more effective teams.

Referent leaders build a following based on trust, respect and admiration. They hold themselves to a higher standard, and they inspire their teams to do the same. Having a referent leader can change your workplace culture, cultivate innovation, and build stronger teams.




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