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How referent power lets women exercise authority without blowback

There are many ways that a business leader can gain and exercise power. Some of these are heavy-handed, such as positional power (I am the boss and you have to do what I say) or punishment power (If you don’t do what I say, I’ll fire you). While these kinds of power are effective in very specific circumstances, they don’t work well as long-term business leadership strategies.

They especially don’t work well for women. Most people react swiftly to a domineering woman with strong dislike and anger. We expect women in authority to be smart and forceful but also kind and empathic.

One type of power that often works well for women leaders has been labeled referent power. Referent power is about gaining others’ followership because they respect you, they want your approval, and they want to be like you. Think about the leaders you have worked with who inspired your loyalty and spurred you to do your best. Were you afraid of them? Probably not. Did you admire them and want to please them? You bet.

How can a woman leader build her referent power? Here are four key suggestions:

  • Practice what you preach. Don’t expect others to do what you won’t do. Live the values you expect from your team. Treat everyone with respect and courtesy, all the time, no matter what.
  • Be honest. Keep your team informed. Be frank about what you don’t know. If you make a mistake, admit it and correct it. Never lie.
  • Earn trust. Do what you say you will do. Defend your team members, and make sure they know when you are sticking up for them. Share credit for wins and take accountability for failures.
  • Celebrate wins. Give praise and rewards lavishly for a job well done. Praise people publicly (if they like it). Bring fun and celebration into the workplace.

Under the pressure of driving performance in challenging and competitive business environments, many business leaders ignore these behaviors. They place unreasonable expectations on their team members, they are deceptive or unreliable, and they focus more on problems and failures than on successes and wins. These behaviors sometimes gratify a business leader’s own needs to feel powerful in the moment, but they do not build real and lasting power.

Business leaders do not have to be bullies or egomaniacs to get the job done. True leaders influence their people by deploying a range of powerful tactics — and using their referent power is one of the best tools in their toolboxes.

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