Sources of Power in Organizations

Instructions: Read the texts and answer the questions on the tabs that follow.


A half-century ago, social scientists John French and Bertrand Raven identified five sources of power found in organisations. Although variations of this list have been proposed over the years, the original list remains surprisingly intact. Three sources of power—legitimate, reward and coercive— originate mostly (but not completely) from the power holder’s formal position or informal role. In other words, the person is granted these sources of power formally by the organisation or informally by co-workers. Two other sources of power—expert and referent—originate mainly from the power holder’s own characteristics; in other words, people carry these power bases around with them. However, even personal sources of power are not completely within the person, because they depend on how others perceive them.

Read about 'Legitimate Power' and then go to the next tab to check your understanding.

Legitimate power is an agreement among organisational members that people in certain roles can request a set of behaviours from others. This perceived right or obligation originates from formal job descriptions as well as informal rules of conduct. The most obvious example of legitimate power is a manager’s right to tell employees what tasks to perform, whom to work with, what office resources they can use and so forth. Employees follow the boss’s requests because there is mutual agreement that employees will follow a range of directives from people in these positions of authority. Employees defer to this authority whether or not they will be rewarded or punished for complying with those requests.

Notice that legitimate power has restrictions; it only gives the power holder the right to ask for a range of behaviours from others. This range—known as  the ‘zone of indifference’—is the set of behaviours that individuals are willing to engage in at the other person’s request. Although most employees accept the boss’s right to deny them access to Facebook during company time, some might draw the line when the boss asks them to work several hours beyond the regular work day.

Read and Predict

'Reward power' is derived from the person’s ability to control the allocation of rewards valued by others and to remove negative sanctions (i.e. negative reinforcement).

Good readers use prediction skills because it helps them to learn and retain content better. After reading the sentence above, let's predict:

1) What kinds of employee rewards does a boss or supervisor have control over.  How many different types can you think of?  

2) Does an employee have any reward power over their boss?  How?

Now go to the next tab to read more and check your predictions.

Read on to check your predictions

Reward power is derived from the person’s ability to control the allocation of rewards valued by others and to remove negative sanctions (i.e. negative reinforcement). Managers have formal authority that gives them power over the distribution of organisational rewards, such as pay, promotions, time off, vacation schedules and work assignments. Employees also have reward power over their bosses through their feedback and ratings in 360-degree feedback systems. These ratings affect supervisors’ promotions and other rewards, so supervisors tend to pay more attention to employee needs after 360-degree feedback is introduced.

Read about 'Coercive Power' and then go to the next tab to check your understanding.

Coercive power is the ability to apply punishment. For many of us, the first thought is managers threatening employees with dismissal. Yet employees also have coercive power, such as being sarcastic towards co-workers or threatening to ostracise them if they fail to conform to team norms. Many firms rely on this coercive power to control co-worker behaviour in team settings. Nucor is one such example: ‘If you’re not contributing with the team, they certainly will let you know about it’, says an executive at the Charlotte, North Carolina, steelmaker. ‘The few poor players get weeded out by their peers.’ Similarly, when asked how AirAsia maintained attendance and productivity after the Malaysian discount airline removed time clocks, chief executive Tony Fernandes replied: ‘Simple. Peer pressure sees to that. The fellow employees, who are putting their shoulders to the wheel, will see to that.’


McShane. S., Olekalns, M., Newman, A., & Martin, A. (2019) Organisational behaviour. Emerging knowledge. Global Insights. 6e Asia-Pacific Edition. McGraw Hill Education.