Build Your Referent Power and Become a Better Leader


Employees are the foundation of any successful business. However, it takes great leadership to ensure that they remain productive, healthy, and engaged. 

According to DDI’s Frontline Leader Project, 57% of workers leave their job because of their managers.

Indeed, it’s important to have a leader who can inspire healthy collaboration among employees. Companies must develop managers who can influence people to become loyal, motivated, and engaged.

To become this kind of leader, you’ll need referent power that can help you inspire and manage your team efficiently. In this post, we’ll explain why you need this quality as a leader. We’ll also share some tips on building your referent power to become a better manager.

What Is Referent Power?

In 1959, social psychologists John French Jr. and Bertram Raven identified the five types of power, namely Coercive, Reward, Legitimate, Expert, and Referent. The first three classifications are categorized as formal power, while the last two, including referent, are considered as personal powers. Here’s how they pan out:

  • Coercive – power acquired by instilling the fear of punishment on individuals.
  • Reward – power gained by providing perks or benefits for cooperation.
  • Legitimate – power gained from the basis of a manager’s position in an organization.
  • Expert – power acquired due to mastery or specialization over a subject.
  • Referent – influence gained through respect, admiration, and trust.

The personal qualities of the leader are where their referent power comes from. They do not grow their influence through their capacity to issue punishments or rewards. In a way, they are also using a transformational leadership style where they inspire and motivate people to be the best versions of themselves.

Compared to other types of power, referent power is not imposed. Instead, a leader has to earn it. As such, it takes time and a lot of effort to acquire this power. However, when you consider the benefits in the long run, earning referent power is definitely worth it.

Referent leaders in an organization discourage counterproductive behavior. They also contribute to lowering the anxiety levels of employees by maintaining open communication within the team. What’s great about referent power is it encourages workers to stay with a company. It’s worth noting that Gallup’s State of the American Manager report says that 70% of employee turnover occurs to disliked leaders.

A manager with referent power is someone who is seen as a role model. Their subordinates follow them out of respect and admiration. What’s more, when faced with challenges, employees think about what their leader would do.

Tips on Building Your Referent Power


The remote work movement has spurred a need for effective collaboration and increased trust. This is also the reason why referent power has become necessary for people who desire to become better leaders. In the long run, demanding output from employees on the basis of your position will not be effective.

So, how do you build your referent power? Here are some important tips you can follow:

1. Practice Active Listening

You may think that becoming a persuasive leader requires you to constantly give instructions and guidance to your team. Well, that’s not always the case.

If you want to build your referent power, you need to take every opportunity to practice active listening. Also, instead of talking on and on, it’s sometimes better to let your employees speak so that their concerns can be heard.

When someone in your team turns to you for advice or support, make them feel that their opinions and feelings matter. So, you should:

  • Show non-verbal cues that indicate you’re listening
  • Keep eye contact
  • Not show disdain or judgment even when you don’t agree with what they’re saying
  • Ask questions related to what they’re saying
  • Provide sound advice that will help them resolve their issue

2. Become a Mentor

Mentorship programs are also a great way for developing your referent power. As your mentee sees you as a good source of advice and as a role model, you’re also growing your influence. So, if you want to build your capacity for referent power, engage in mentorship programs and develop trust with your mentees.

When you mentor other people, you can also build your leadership skills. You can grow your connections, train yourself to provide constructive feedback, and even become a better communicator. These interpersonal skills are critical aspects of developing your referent power. Some of the best examples of mentoring pairing include:

Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey

Maya Angelou was Oprah Winfrey’s go-to person for advice when the latter was still in her 20s. Through the years and Oprah’s growing career, their mentor-mentee relationship remained strong. Maya was a poet, but Oprah frequently recalls that the best advice she gave was that actions speak louder than words. Maya would often tell her to take a person based on their behavior and not who they say they are.

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg

In a sense, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are on the same playing field. Even so, Mark has mentioned how thankful he was that Steve was there to mentor him during the early days of Facebook. When Mark paid tribute to Steve after his passing, it was evident that he had the utmost respect for the late Apple founder.

Maya Angelou and Steve Jobs evidently grew their influence by harnessing their referent power. They were seen as role models who valued relationships and credible advice.

3. Recognize Hard Work

Did your team find a creative method to resolve a long-standing problem? Perhaps, they were able to complete a challenging project on time. If so, you should always recognize their hard work. Appreciating your employees is important in keeping them engaged and motivated.

According to O.C. Tanner research, 79% of employees resign because they felt their work was unappreciated. Indeed, it’s important to coach your team and tell them their areas for improvement. However, it’s equally crucial to highlight their achievements. After a long and difficult month, you can throw an appreciation party. You can also evaluate their output in a positive manner—one that encourages them to learn from their mistakes.

Here are other ways you can recognize your employees:

  • When they go above and beyond, give them gifts. It can be in the form of a gift card or something grand like an all-expense-paid vacation.
  • Individuals with exemplary contributions should be recognized publicly. You can do it during a regular town hall meeting or post it on the company’s social media account.
  • Acquire feedback from your team. One way of showing your appreciation is by making your employees feel that their opinions matter.

4. Avoid Micromanaging Your Team

If you give your employees the freedom to do their best, they will likely take ownership of their work. When you’re constantly doubtful about the quality of your team’s work, then you’ve probably hired the wrong people. If that’s not the case, then it simply means you are not willing to give them a chance to fail and learn from their mistakes.

When building your influence, you need to empower your workers. Instead of micromanaging every little thing they do, you should guide and help them. It’s better to focus on the results instead of the small steps taken during the process. By taking this approach, you’re fostering accountability, reducing stress, and encouraging people to do better.

If you’re worried about the productivity of your remote team, then your best option is to use a time tracking app that promotes ethical employee monitoring. For example, with Traqq, you can ensure that every minute paid is a minute worked. Besides, the app monitors people without violating their privacy.

While the app takes random screenshots, it intentionally blurs the images to prevent sensitive information from becoming legible. All the while, you get an idea of what an employee is doing at a given time. Aside from that, Traqq generates a report of the websites and apps that users spend time on. So, you know that your team is doing productive work without micromanaging them.

Activity Dashboard of Time Tracker

5. Keep Your Promises

One of the reasons why leaders with referent power grow their influence is because of the trust they build. Besides, anyone would love to work with a manager who is trustworthy. According to Paul J. Zak, professor of psychology in Claremont Graduate University, people who trust their employers experience 74% less stress and 40% less burnout.

Now, one of the best ways to develop trust is by constantly following through with your promises. By setting a standard for reliability, you can inspire people to take ownership of their commitments. So, if someone raises an issue and you promise to review it, you will earn their respect by following through with what you said.

Another way you can keep your promises is by remembering the ambitions and goals of the people you lead. What are the professional goals they want to achieve this year? What do they want for their career five years from now? What are the steps you’re taking to help them accomplish their goals? You can encourage your employees to chase their career goals by supporting them. You can connect them with the proper resources and show them that you care for them.

6. Lead by Example

Creating logical rules is not the only thing that makes a great leader. You also need to follow the policies you set. You eliminate distractions by prohibiting social network sites in the workplace. However, you shouldn’t use them either during office hours. Building referent power also involves leading employees by example.

People are unlikely to do something if they’re not ready for it. So, before implementing rules, you should talk to your employees and discuss the relevance of what you’re imposing. What’s more, if you’re limiting personal web access, find other ways for your team to destress. After all, there are better ways to maximize breaks and enhance productivity.

7. Have an Open Mind

Building your referent power also involves opening yourself to new perspectives and ideas. You must know how to motivate others to work together. So, you’ll need to harness your diplomatic skills to determine if it’s the right time to compromise.

When you are open to the ideas of your team, you can create a work environment where everyone is comfortable speaking their mind. As a result, people will likely go above and beyond while taking ownership of their work.

A perfect example would be Google’s 20% rule which has been running for over a decade. Employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time learning new skills or working on new projects. By creating this company-wide policy, Google has opened more opportunities to get new perspectives and ideas.

8. Vouch for Your Team

One of the indications of maturity as a leader is the ability to own up to the mistakes of their team. When issues arise, instead of putting the blame on employees in front of clients, you should stand up for them. Remember that you are accountable for every person you recruit.

Once you get the time, discuss what led to the problem and develop a plan for handling and avoiding the same situation. You’ll need to take a sensible approach when addressing this issue. Doing so will show your wisdom as a leader.

9. Be Genuinely Interested in Your Team

Remember that every person in your team has personal problems and joys. If you want to show sincere care for your employees, you should get to know the person they are outside work. Understand their struggles outside the workplace and show that they matter to you.

The simplest way to do this is by asking people how they spend their weekends. Show genuine interest in their response by asking follow-up questions. If they’re facing problems, offer any help that you can provide. Now, if their struggles are beyond your capacity, at least show understanding and empathy.

If you want to get to know your employees, you can organize team building activities. Such events can also help people bond with each other. After all, informal settings allow employees to go beyond water cooler talk to deeper conversations.

What Are the Benefits of Referent Power?

Leaders who harness referent power have the ability to motivate employees to become more productive. By uniting their team, they can inspire people to work towards a common goal. Here are the benefits of referent power in the workplace:

Trusting and Positive Relationships

Managers with referent power are often supportive and encouraging of their employees. Moreover, they allow people to find innovative and creative solutions to problems. Because workers have freedom over their work, their stress points and anxiety dial down. Besides, there’s less uncertainty around the projects, which helps avoid delays while improving productivity.

Along the process of building your referent power, you’re also creating trusting and positive relationships. In the workplace, people will not be hesitant to approach you with questions or concerns.

Collaborative Teams

Because employees know that their managers have an open mind, they freely contribute their creative ideas to the project. A leader with referent power can also be considered a democratic manager. They always welcome and acknowledge the opinions of their subordinates.

By promoting healthy collaboration in the workplace, bureaucratic processes are minimized within the organization. As a result, the workflow between departments and teams get accelerated.

People know that their work is less about following protocols and getting documents signed. Instead, it is about accomplishing positive results for their projects.

Satisfied Employees

There are several good reasons why leaders with referent power are respected in the workplace. For one, they are dedicated to their responsibilities. Because they serve as positive role models to their employees, they inspire people to change for the better.

What’s more, their subordinates understand why they’re doing their jobs. They know that there’s a noble cause behind it simply because their manager believes in their goals. Moreover, employees know exactly what’s expected of them, and when they deliver, they are recognized for their hard work. As a result, they are satisfied with their roles within their organizations.

Better Employee Retention

Because leaders with referent power motivate their subordinates, they retain loyal workers. Of course, with lower staff turnover, a company can avoid the expensive process of hiring and onboarding new employees.

Examples of Referent Power

Many are not aware of this, but referent power examples are evident in celebrities, political figures, and even tech CEOs. One great example is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Whether he’s on set or simply being himself, he always inspires his fans to become the best versions of themselves. Here are other examples of people with referent power:

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama is known for being a charismatic first lady who is compassionate and strong. She’s also lauded for her sincere interest in social causes and her inspiring public speeches. Michelle is one of the few first ladies who broke the stereotypes of a traditional wife to the POTUS. She harnessed her referent power to run widespread campaigns against inequality, poverty, and obesity.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s financial status is not the only reason why people around the globe admire him. He has been respected for the innovations he brought to technology. According to Dolly Singh, SpaceX’s former talent acquisition head, Musk inspires people to take on seemingly impossible missions. As a result, his team is always motivated to develop innovative designs that transform the future of robotics, energy storage, and transportation.

Wrapping Up

In the workplace, there are plenty of opportunities for a leader to develop their referent power. The easiest way to achieve this is by becoming a manager who is loved instead of feared by their employees. As we’ve seen in the Great Resignation of 2021, workers are now quick to leave their jobs when they feel disrespected. So, build a culture of trust in the workplace and you are on your way to becoming a better leader.

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