What is Referent Power?

Referent power is defined by trust. By its very nature, it is not something the leader can command of others, but rather something the leader earns on a case-by-case basis over time. It is, without question, the most important source of influence potential a leader can have—and the most volatile. Centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli suggested that, ideally, a leader would be both feared and loved by those under his command. But, if he had to choose one or the other, fear was the most viable and sustainable source of leadership.

In today’s world, the opposite is true. Leaders who can earn and maintain the trust of others consistently drive productivity, enhance engagement and retain key talent. At this point, it has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt that people do not leave organizations per se; they leave the manager to whom they report at that organization. The flip side of that coin is also true. Many times, people stay with organizations because they could not fathom reporting to a different manager.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind for building a base of Referent power:

  1. It Takes a Long Time to Earn … and no Time to Burn: There is no predetermined timeline for establishing trust, respect and credibility with others. People need to “see you in action,” under stress, with a deliverable or on a project that truly matters. They need time to assess whether you have your interests in mind at the expense of others—or the interests of others in mind, potentially, at your own expense.
  2. It is Much More About What You Hear … Than What You Say: When you are a leader, there are plenty of opportunities to talk. But your ability to earn trust and develop Referent power is dictated by the time you make to listen to what others have to reveal in a manner that genuinely communicates that their perspective matters.
  3. “Power With” Outplays “Power Over”: The less people consider your position in the organization relative to theirs when providing you with insight on their perspective, the higher the probability that insight will contain some true value.