7 Types of Power in the Workplace

There’s a quote by Margaret Thatcher that says, “Power is like being a lady…if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”  Personally, I find the study of power fascinating.  Dictionary.com defines power as “a person or thing that possesses or exercises authority or influence”.  So in essence when we use power; we’re utilizing our authority to get something.

Everyone has powerEveryone.  And, I don’t believe that power is a bad thing.  The issue becomes what kind of power a person has and how someone uses that power.  Here are some of the common types of power found in the workplace.

  • Coercive power is associated with people who are in a position to punish others. People fear the consequences of not doing what has been asked of them.
  • Connection power is based upon who you know.  This person knows, and has the ear of, other powerful people within the organization.
  • Expert power comes from a person’s expertise (duh!).  This is commonly a person with an acclaimed skill or accomplishment.


  • A person who has access to valuable or important information possesses informational power.
  • Legitimate power comes from the position a person holds.  This is related to a person’s title and job responsibilities.  You might also hear this referred to as positional power.
  • Reward power is based upon a person’s ability to bestow rewards.  Those rewards might come in the form of job assignments, schedules, pay or benefits.

Now, stop being modest and thinking to yourself…I don’t have any power.  As you can see, there are lots of different ways power can manifest itself.  And for that reason, it’s important to realize that power exists in all of us.  It’s also possible that you have different kinds of power with different groups or situations.

Now, the two biggest mistakes I see with people’s use of power revolve around (1) trying to use power they don’t have and (2) using the wrong kind of power to achieve results.

To help you identify your ‘power zone’, take a moment and think about how you try to influence action from others.  You could use the descriptions above as a pseudo self-assessment.  Rate yourself on a scale of 1-5 in each of the different kinds of power.  With 1 being not at all characteristic of you and 5 being quite characteristic.

This can be a (sorry for the pun) powerful exercise.  If you’re honest with yourself, I hope you’ll find the results helpful.  Not only for the way you tend to use power but in the way others use power with you.

Image courtesy of Ivan Walsh


  1. Jane Perdue says

    Great post, Sharlyn, on one of my “hot button” topics! Like so many attributes of leadership and life, power can be used negatively to promote one’s “I win, you lose” position; or it can be used positively to foster “win-win” outcomes for both individuals and the organizations. We need more of the later, less of the former!

  2. says

    Power is often an understudied skill. A good friend of mine recommended “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene to me over a year ago. It is a primer for learning about how power has played out in history and it helps you think about how to apply it today. I have written several articles on some of the chapters in my blog.

  3. says

    @Jane – Thanks for commenting. I agree the win-win approach is the measurement of success.

    @Anne – The possibilities are mind-boggling if more professionals use their power for business outcomes. Thanks for joining the conversation!

    @John – Thanks for the kind words. You’re the best.

    @Lynn – Totally agree, more time should be spent exploring the use of power in the workplace. Thanks for the book suggestion (hope you don’t mind me adding the link.)

  4. says

    Great post, I think that power is very misunderstood in the workplace and that HR folks often have access to more power than what they think. I did notice that Jedi mind tricks was missing from the list though and that tends to be how I get things done. Have a good weekend!

  5. says

    Hi Joe. Thanks for joining the convo. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is one of those times when people need to dispense with their modesty and recognize their own power to bring positive change.

  6. says

    Good summary post, Sharlyn. I’d like to add another kind of power that I’ve noticed doing social network analysis of organizations. It may already be there, somewhere between “expert power” and “information power,” but I think it should be explicit.

    I’ve found people with great influence in their organization because of their relationships. I don’t mean “Listen, Officer, my brother knows the Mayor.” These people know how to find the people who will help you solve your problem.

    One engineer, Phil, was a strong node in the network. He was knowledgeable and competent, but not enough to warrant that position. He was there because when you had a problem you called Phil. You said, “I’m doing this project and I need some help.” Phil would point you to two or three people who had experience or resources or friends who could help you.

    I’ve been calling that relationship power and I bundle it with other knowledge that people carry in their heads, but use at work.

  7. says

    Thanks for joining the convo Wally. I’ve seen the example you describe. Almost like a match-maker. A person who connects people. That’s why having an understanding of what people in your network do…even if you might not personally use their services is important.

  8. says

    Sharlyn, the point that speaks to me most is the fact that power in itself is not bad. Power is something that can be used in different ways. When a person has an unbelievable amount of power and abuses it, then you have a problem. When the person is able to wield the power in order to achieve great feats that benefit a cause larger than themselves, then you have a positive outcome from the use of that same power.
    Excellent and thought provoking!

  9. says

    @HRManagement – So true. Thanks for the comment.

    @GeekCoach – Thanks for the comment and sharing the book link. I’ll have to check it out.

    @Marguerite – Well said. Proper use of power can be very valuable to organizations. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  10. iris n. says

    Interesting topic. Power is usually thought of as something that a CEO has, but its interesting to realize that yes, there certainly are many times of power. This is something that I suppose is important, because everyone needs to have their own little “place” in the work environment. What type of power do I have? If I had to choose one right now, perhaps it is referent power or perhaps an expertise power over individuals who do not yet possess the degrees or knowledge that I have accumulated thus far. But, of course, that would only work in a setting where I have the most knowledge. In a different group setting, my role will be different. Quite an interesting topic. There are certainly some type of individuals who do not hold any “legitimate” power, yet, they are the ones who pull the group together and make the decisions that lead the group.

  11. says

    Sharlyn – I missed this one the first time around, so am really glad it was included in the 20 Best Leadership Blog posts. It touches on so many different, important concepts. I love Joe’s suggestion of Jedi mind tricks and Wally’s suggestion of relationship power. If you can craft a compelling vision and appreciate people’s value in accomplishing that vision, there’s little you can’t do!

  12. says

    Iris and Amy – Thanks so much for the comments. I find the idea of workplace power absolutely fascinating. I’m glad we can keep this conversation alive.

  13. sherry says

    We are currently talking about power, influencing tactics and personality traits in our Leadership Development Class. I believe that there are people that should not have power as they use it to advance there career and sink yours. There are other people who with power to great things and really make a difference in the lives of the people around them and the community too. I know power can change over time. I know that personal power is more easily gained and lost than position power. Social exchange theory explains how power is gained and lost as reciprocal influence processes occur over time between leaders and followers in small groups. Friendship is a social exchange, and some people place higher value on the friendships they have a t work than on the work itself.

  14. says

    I did not realize that there were so many different types of power until I read this article. My experience in the workplace with power has always been a boss that exerts their power of authority to try to control the employees. I have seen more abuse of this power than I have any other type. You have definitely given me something to think about, and have made me realize that I have more power than I thought I had. Thanks!
    Jeff Sherwood-The Affiliate Marketing Guy recently posted..Effective Keyword Research-Part 1

  15. Keith Bidne says

    Great article! The various characteristics and types of power in the workplace is necessary to help a company function and grow. However, the “x” factor infused into the types of power is EGO. Careful understanding and utilization of the attained power coupled with an ego that creates a healthy team environment is really what separates the excellent from the mediocre.

  16. says

    Great article Sharlyn. I’ve noticed that leaders who are healthily powerful have worked hard to develop their own understanding of self and not let their own insecurities and needs get in the way of helping others succeed. It’s a type of power wielded by people who are so secure with themselves that they are able to transcend their own needs and help others grow. When employees feel that they are motivating themselves and have control over their destiny they then feel more powerful as well.

  17. says

    Power resides in minds of men but the real problem is how to unfold it. Some were born into power, some had it reposed on them, others stumbled into it, but the most powerful of all men unfolds it from withing themselves; they are often men of no historical background. They found a secret that others do not know. Enormous power comes into the hands of men when they discover secrets.

  18. says

    This was a great article to stumble on because recently I’ve been feeling powerless! I feel like I used to have each one of these kinds of power and each year they become less and less. Reading this has sparked motivation in me to RECLAIM my power. Is that possible? I think it is, but will definitely require some extra effort. I realize I must re-focus on which is my strongest power zone and improve in that area.
    Thanks, Sharlyn, for bringing this to my attention!

  19. says

    Hi Carolyn. Thanks for the comment. Yes, it’s absolutely possible to reclaim your power. I try to ask myself, “What’s the best power for this situation?” and do a double check to see if I have it.

  20. shaun says

    Hey people,

    I need to write an essay on the types of power for a university assignment. Does any-one know of a good case study I can link themes of power such as c0-ercion, manipulation, domination and subjectification?

    any response is much appreciated.

  21. says

    Hi Sharlyn,

    I was reading over some of your earlier blogs and really like this one entitled, “7 Types of Power in the Workplace.”

    I’d like to add one of my own to your list:

    8. Abusive Power is associated with a person who goes overboard constantly making the point that they have some or any kind of power over others – even when it’s miniscule. He or she could be in charge of emptying waste baskets, but makes it a bigger issue than need be to the point of absurdity.

    It’s pretty rare to come across this type of power – I think it is usually linked to the type of people who do not have the education of many of their coworkers with degrees and is one who has to constantly lord over others how great they are without education to make themselves feel better. In the end, I believe that secretly it doesn’t make them feel better.


  22. shaun says

    Sharlyn – thankyou very much. Have now included some aspects of that book in the task. Much appreciated :)

  23. Daniels Awodi David says

    Dank God so much, i now know my power, i used 2 tink am powerless in d orangisation.

  24. says

    The power in the workplace can vary based upon the position. I find that in the corporate/medical environment there’s an obvious hierarchy. One knows who the boss is and that’s that.

    However in a small business, start up, private practice, sales etc…The powers struggle varies and it can sometimes create tension especially when competition is involved.

  25. says

    Power does so often get abused in the workplace. If you do have it, use to get things done is an orderly way.. do not however, upset the workforce or bring down the overall morale.

  26. says

    I believe that how you interact with the people in your workplace depends on who are the people you interact with. Most of the time you would use the combination of powers stated above in different situations you are in. But I believe that there’s that innate power that you would generally act on or well known for in your workplace. That’s a good exercise to assess your power.

  27. DUAA says

    In each of the following scenarios, identify (a) what type of power is being used

    1.In a recent staff meeting, Sean asks each staff member to identify one night each pay period when they can work to cover staffing.
    2.Marita gave a day off with pay to those staff members who worked so hard on developing policies and procedures before JCAHO visited.
    3.Stephen sits down with each of his new employees and answers any questions they have about the unit.
    4.Following each advisory committee meeting, Joyce provides a copy of the minutes in the communication book.
    5.Mark documents all absences and late arrivals in his employee files.
    6.Juana is very involved in a number of civic and professional organizations.
    7.Besides being the chief nurse executive, Janelle is president of the state nurse’s association

  28. KINGSLEY says

    hy good ppipz am in intresed in the study about leadership and now i have an assaignment about types of powers a leader has but i must make them relevent to the police force i would to hear ur knowledge as most of you have an expirience

  29. tendai mwarumba says

    the post has been really helpful, i found so many types of powers for my business studies assignment. Thank you…..

  30. James Howell says

    Excellent work on the 7 types of power. Although touched on above, another bears specific mention. Influential power. That is the ability to be able to lead the group in a direction without coming across as either coercive or authoritative but delicately and purposefully all at the same time. This can be associated with charisma in regards to people “following the leader” even though they don’t necessarily recognize it. They follow/work with/buy in because they can see the wisdom and intelligence involved in the discussion, not because they are “told to” forcefully. As a power person, what techniques are in your arsenal, that you can make use of to facilitate a plan formulation as a group. As an opposite for the purpose of explanation, and to use a quoted phrase, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see everything as a nail.”