The ability to influence others is at the heart of project management. But it is not always easy. The goal of this article is to enhance your influencing skills by providing insight into where power comes from in social and organisational contexts.

Here’s how one project manager described a project manger’s dilemma.

If a project goes well, my role is invisible. If a project goes badly, I’m very visible. I’m seen as the person responsible for all that’s wrong with this project.

Whether or not you share this perspective, a better understanding of the sources of influence available to you will help you make better choices about how to apply your project influencing skills.

Understanding the Sources of Influence

Let’s begin with exploring where influence comes from in the social and organizational contexts. Although first described around 50 years ago, the model of power developed by French and Raven is still widely used. The six sources of power that they identify are:

  • Coercive
  • Reward
  • Legitimate
  • Expert
  • Referent
  • Information

If you understand this, you’ll be in a better position to apply your influencing skills as a project manager.

Applying Sanctions and Rewards

The first two sources of power, coercive and reward power, are essentially two sides of the same coin. If you can administer sanctions and rewards, you can exercise this kind of influence. As a project manager, you may or may not have access to this type of power. A manager may be able to use this approach by firing or demoting someone (coercion) for poor performance, or by promoting someone (reward power) for an excellent performance.

As a project manager, you may wish for this type of authority on your project. But there is a downside. Using this kind of power requires close supervision. If you are to make appropriate decisions about rewards and punishments, you need detailed to collect detailed data about what is going on. This requires a lot of your time and resources.

The Power of a Formal Position

The third source of power, legitimate power, comes from a formally approved role. Your boss has legitimate power as a result of his or her position. The CEO of your company has legitimate power. As a project manager, the extent to which your formal role carries this type of power will depend on where you fit in the structure of the organisation.

If you’re like many project managers, access to role-based legitimate power may be limited. When available, the use of legitimate power can be effective. But relying on legitimate power alone is risky.

The power derives from the role itself, rather than the individual who occupies that role. IF you lose the role or the role is changed, you lose the power that comes from that formal role.

Three More Sources of Power

The other three types of power, expert, referent, and information power, are relevant to most project manager roles. Expert power is based on your knowledge and experience. If you begin a project with a successful track record for similar projects, you already have access to expert power.

If you are the project manager of a health care project, and you worked in this field before you became a project manager, you can draw on this expertise to build your credibility with the project team. You may have already leveraged this type of power to gain a competitive advantage that helped you secure your current job.

Unlike expert power, referent power is based on how others see you. It comes from personal qualities such as likeability and charisma. The extent to which you can leverage your project influencing skills depends on how others see you and make sense of what you do. Because this type of power is ascribed by others, the outcomes are less predictable.

For example, if you manage diverse project teams, the same behaviour may be interpreted differently depending on cultural norms and values. In one team, being openly critical may be perceived as a sign of being fully engaged and a team player.

In a different cultural environment, the same behaviour may be seen as disrespectful. Social perceptions are also influenced by a team and organisational cultures. When you take steps to increase your referent power, the outcomes rely not just on what you do, but also on others’ perceptions.

The final source of power, information power, is based on your ability to “change people’s minds” through reasoning and logic. As a project manager when faced with choices to make, you may provide information to the team to explain why a particular course of action is the best one. If the team accepts this reasoning, you have successfully exercised informational power.

How to Increase your Influence

Now that you understand different sources of power, how can you apply this knowledge to increase your influence as a project manager? The first step is to choose a recent successful project and identify the areas where you feel you had the most influence.

Exploring what you do most naturally will give you some insight into your personal strengths as a project manager. For example, did you enhance your referent power by making it a priority to build good relationships with the team members? Were you able to leverage your expert power by sharing previous relevant expertise with your team members?

The next step is to expand your natural strengths by assessing the sources of power available to you. For example, consider which of the six sources of power discussed above are available to you in a current or new project. Do you know how different members of the project team see you?

Are there things you can do to enhance your credibility? Do you know what’s important to members of your team so that you can share the right information at the right time? Use questions such as these to identify promising ways of building the project influencing skills you need to increase the success rate.

About Guest Contributor

Jennifer Bradley, PhD helps professionals take their career to the next level. She’s a Registered Occupational and Coaching Psychologist and Certified Coach, with a Certificate in Project Management from Portland State University. Currently based in the United States, Jennifer coaches professionals to navigate career transitions and develop more resilient careers by tapping into their personal strengths. She combines her personal experience of international relocation and career change with several career industry certifications and extensive work experience in higher education and health care. Jennifer helps her clients learn the approaches to career communication, job search, and career management that produce results more quickly in today’s dynamic employment market. She has shared her work on career development, work-life transitions, and job stress through conference presentations and published articles. For more information visit: Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn: , or by Email: moc.hcaocsnoitporeerac@bj.

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By: Baz Khinda

Baz Khinda
Commercial Director, BA, MBS, MCTS, CertBusM, PRINCE2, Microsoft P-SSP (Partner Solution Sales professional)
Categories: Consulting

Published: 13 May 2014

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