6 Types of Social Power



“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” — Tao Te Ching

Not all power is created equal.  

If you know the six sources of social power, then you can influence yourself and others more effectively.

But first, let’s take a look at the most fleeting form of power.

Information Power is the Most Transient form of Power

Information power doesn’t last.  Give away a piece of information and you give your power away.

On the other hand, knowledge and know-how is more enduring than informational power, but it’s limited to the area of expertise.

As you’ll soon see, a little know-how goes a long way, in more ways than one.

In the book, Social Psychology: Theories, Research, and Applications,  Robert S. Feldman writes about the six bases of social power.

6 Types of Social Power

Feldman writes that according to French and Raven (1959), and later Raven (1974), there are six bases of social power:

  1. Reward Power
  2. Coercive Power
  3. Referent Power
  4. Legitimate Power
  5. Expert Power
  6. Informational Power

Here is a brief summary of the six type of power:

Reward Power

Reward Power is the ability to give rewards when others comply with your wishes.  This may not work from one setting to the next.  For example, an employee might laugh at a boss’s joke, but the boss’s neighbor might not.

Coercive Power

Coercive Power is the opposite of Reward Power.  It’s the ability to deliver punishments.  While coercion can be effective in the short-term, it creates resentment and individuals will try to end the relationship.

Referent Power

This is where role models come into play.  Referent Power is when somebody wants to be like you.  They identify with you.  You are their reference model.  They find you attractive in some way and they model your behavior or thinking.  Groups can also be a reference model and provide standards and norms of behavior, for example, social or peer pressure.  It’s also possible to have negative reference groups.  In this case, you want to avoid being like the group, and you modify your behavior to feel less similar to the group.

Legitimate Power

Legitimate Power is power that comes from a position or role.  It’s positional authority.  For example, you "should" or "ought" to listen to your parents, or your boss.  The unique aspect of legitimate power is that it’s not about rational arguments — the power comes from the position or role.  Also, the role can be more important than the individual.  For example, presidents my come and go, but the role is always a powerful one.

Expert Power

"Knowledge is power."  Expert Power is where expertise or knowledge is the source of power. This is where credentials, awards, and know-how play a role.  You end up deferring to greater knowledge for the area of expertise, such as a doctor or mechanic.  It’s limited to the area of expertise.  For example, you won’t ask your doctor for advice on your car, just because they are a skilled physician.

Informational Power

Informational Power is the most transitory type of power.  Once you give your information away, you give your power away.   For example, you share the secret, your power is gone.  It’s different from other forms of power because it’s grounded in what you know about the content of a specific situation.  Other forms of power are independent of the content.

How To Use the Types of Power

The next time you find yourself following the crowd or following a leader, check yourself and ask where their power is coming from.

If you find yourself in a leadership position, practice self-awareness and know what you draw your power and influence from.

The next time you find yourself holding onto information because you think it gives you power, recognize that this is a fragile base.

Coercive Power is not sustainable and it burns bridges.

Legitimate Power comes and goes with the position, and Informational Power is very fleeting. (I don’t depend on information as a source of power, so I’m always quick to give information away.)

Instead, build expertise and reward people.

They are firm and worthy ways to improve your influence, and rewards can be as simple as acknowledgment and appreciation.

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Image by Alena Navarro-Whyte.


  1. […] Information is the Most Transient Form of Power – Sources of Insight […]

  2. Hmm… food for thought. I think some of my power is informational, so it is transient. However, this information comes from a deep understanding of certain things, which allows me to always generate new, better information and always have something to offer. At least until now…

    I think something else which matters a lot is skills and attitude power. Cause it reflects not only that you know something, but that you can do or be something. Which is a lot harder to learn.


  3. That’s perfectly explains what they wrote in Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants book. New marketing is insight based – meaning share your insights freely, and become a recognized SME. People seem to follow those who has proven they have a solution vs. hype. How do you prove you have the solution? You share the information freely.

    Loved it.

  4. @ Eduard — If your information is coming from expertise, that’s different than if you’re just holding a piece of information over somebody, so it’s most likely expert power in disguise. I agree — skills and attitude matter a lot.

    @ Fred — I agree — I like structural power over legitimate (we just need to know the original source named it legitimate.)

    @ Alik — Right — the proof is in the pudding. Thank you.

  5. There is some new information that I picked up here. I didn’t realize the different types of power there was. I would say that I agree with the quote above about the idea of mastering yourself is where the real power is at.

  6. Watching the power of people can be a very entertaining process. I’ve been studying my own powers and it’s amazing how I haven’t used them to their full potential. It’s this self mastery that can be very painful, but has been a huge boom to my blog and business.

  7. @ Baker — My favorite definition of power is “ability to act.” I like that particular quote because it’s about acting with skill.

    @ Karl — A while back a friend told me to think in terms of the sapling and the tree. In some parts of the journey, you’ll be the sapling, while in others you’ll be the tree, and it’s all good, just different parts of the journey.

  8. I never thought of power in those terms, that was an eye opening post for me in a way. Self awareness is the key here, like everywhere else of course.

  9. I really got to know about various power, which we would occupied during our day to day life. I must say most of person can easily obtain informational power, but they don’t have idea of how short life of it is! May be they have idea but till they have it, they understand it as powerful.

    nice article for self state checking at different powers we go through.

  10. JD –

    Excellent information here. Certainly the six types of social power have a big impact on how we can influence others and get attention and reward. I think that rewarding others is probably the most powerful – we all have a psychological desire for attention and to grow, so feeding these is probably the biggest single way of doing that. I know that expertise is a big one too- it offers legitimacy and another way of helping someone else meet their ends. Really liked this punchy post.


  11. I am sure I would get better answers from my Doctor if I asked about my car or my partner’s bicycles…now that is expert knowledge to have 🙂

  12. Hey J.D. I never gave any thought to all the types of power before.

    I wonder if the power of rewarding is more akin to actually being more on the coercive side, than a positive sort of power? For example, if the person is only being rewarded for “correct” behavior, could be like a form of punishment if the reward does not come? Just a personal observation, I guess. Of course, this leads directly back to the only real power — so wonderful stated — mastering the self. If one is looking for outside rewards, it could be a sign to look within.

    Take care and have a great weekend!

  13. HI JD .. thanks for these explanations. Regardless of one’s power – it depends on the recipient .. what they are doing .. ie relative, or boss .. and so often people don’t relate to the receiver – hence the challenges.

    As you say building expertise and rewarding people are firm and worthy ways to improve your influence … … I’d add with a kind heart, and adjusting your knowledge base to where that person’s at … so often as the receiver – you are left unsatisfied and flounder with the amount of knowledge, or the way it was given.

    As you say – practice self-awareness .. so often silence is golden .. but also giving and being kind with your information, if it’s of use, is very worthy .. – thanks Hilary

  14. @ Lana — It was eye opening for me too. I can see where people draw their influence from in a much simpler way, and I can see who has a firm foundation and who doesn’t.

    @ Shailesh — Great way to frame it — information power has the shortest shelf life. Thank you.

    @ Phil — Rewarding others is powerful because it grows your emotional intelligence, improves your effectiveness as a leader, and it grows your tribe. People give their best for you when they know you appreciate it. Thank you.

    @ Patricia — I find some people have a knack for asking better questions, of the right people, and getting better results.

    @ Jannie — I think of it like the Force — there’s a good side and a dark side 😉 That’s why it always goes back to the “why” behind things. Rewarding with bad intentions sure seems like a coercive act to me. One of the tests whether it’s manipulation is whether somebody would still do it, if you told them exactly what you were doing and why. Thank you and back at you!

    @ Hilary — Exactly, all motivation is ultimately self-motivation, right 🙂 You hit a very important key — the power of language and how speaking in ways that matter and make sense to the recipient make all the difference. Thank you.

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