The Basic Idea
Why are experts able to easily influence others in their field of study or workplace?
Think of how our mathematics professor influences the way we approach specific problems. When the professor shows us their preferred method, we adopt and follow the steps without a second thought. In the workplace, we find ourselves intuitively following the instructions of our managers, who have presumably climbed the ranks due to their superior knowledge.
Our professors’ and managers’ expertise enables them to exert expert power: a social power that refers to an individual’s ability to influence people, as a result of the influencer being perceived by others to be a highly skilled expert. Expertise can be demonstrated by superior credentials, reputation, experience, niche skills, or a higher level of knowledge.1
Expertise does not have to be genuine for one to use expert power. As long as others perceive an individual to be an expert, the influencer can benefit from others believing they are experts.
We tend to listen, trust, and respect the opinions of individuals with expert power. They are perceived to have valuable ideas and effective leadership skills, enabling them to exert their influence on others.2
Theory, meet practice
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Social Power: The ability to influence others through social interaction, specifically changing an individual’s beliefs, opinions, attitudes or behaviors.
Influencing Agent: An individual who has the ability to use expert power, or any of the bases of social power, to influence a target.
Target: The subject of an influence attempt by an influencing agent.
Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence: Developed by Betram Raven in 1992, this model explains how influencers consider their motivations and goals in order to select an appropriate social power to implement change in a target.
Expert power was formally articulated by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in their 1959 publication, The Bases of Social Power.1 French and Raven described social power as one source of influence in altering a target’s beliefs and behaviors. They distinguished five types of social power in the following way1:
- Reward Power: When an individual uses rewards to successfully influence the behavior of others.
- Coercive Power: When an individual evokes fear in others, which results in those fearful others changing their behavior to avoid potential punishment.
- Legitimate Power: When an individual is perceived to have a legitimate right to be an authoritative figure and make demands that others comply with.
- Referent Power: When an individual is perceived as admirable or has attractive characteristics, which allows them to influence others to behave similarly to them.
- Expert Power: When an individual is perceived to be an expert in a certain subject, which is used to influence others.
A few years later, Raven added informational power to the list. This social power occurs when an individual can influence others due to their superior ability to access information. Informational power arises in organizational situations where seniority can determine one’s ability to access important information easily.3
Building on this groundbreaking work, Raven went a step further and differentiated each type of social power into subsections. For expert power, he broke it up into two forms:3
- Positive Expert Power: Under the assumption that the expert’s knowledge is correct, the target acts in accordance with instructions of the expert.
For example, when a research assistant directly follows the instructions of a research director.
- Negative Expert Power: Under the assumption that an expert has ulterior motives the target defies the expert’s instructions.
For example, a salesperson may strongly suggest that the target chooses a certain credit card. Even though the target has faith that the salesperson has superior expertise, the target may go against the expert’s suggestion. This occurs as a result of the target believing the salesperson is using expertise solely for personal gain.
In a 1992 publication, Raven used his ideas on expert power to develop the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence.3 This comprehensive model outlined the steps that an influencing agent may consider when exerting social power, condensing French and Raven’s initial ideas into a guide for selecting the most appropriate social power to use in different scenarios.3 According to the model, social influence operates sequentially:
- The influencing agent must first have a motivation to influence.
- The influencing agent then assesses the social powers available to them. The influencing agent analyzes the best social power to use.
- After the influence is applied, the influencing agent assesses the effect of the influence.
Similarly, Raven’s model outlined the general steps from the perspective of the target. Some of these steps include:3
- An assessment of the social powers available to the influencing agent in relation to the target.
- An assessment of the bases of power available to the influencing agent.
- The influence attempt that the target anticipates from the influencing agent.
- An assessment of the effects on the target, once the influencing agent has carried out an influencing attempt.
An American social psychologist who, together with John French, articulated the six bases of social power. He also worked as a professor at UCLA, where he exploring social power relationships, interpersonal influence, and developing the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence.4
John R. P. French
Born in Boston, John French was an American social psychologist who was known for his application of behavioral concepts in organizational and industrial environments. French is most renowned for his groundbreaking work distinguishing six bases of social power. His work with Bertram Raven has had important implications in organizational and management behavior.
Ever since French and Raven’s articulation of expert power, it has become easy to identify in everyday settings, specifically in workplaces and universities.
Intuitively, expert power in the workplace traditionally lies with those in management positions. Individuals in management positions are perceived to have expert power as a result of their superior expertise. This expertise is typically gained from the valuable experience they have accumulated, either by rising through the ranks in the firm or pursuing superior academic or technical credentials. As a result, they are able to use expert power to influence subordinates to act according to their instructions designed to propel the business forward.
However, expert power does not necessarily only lie with those holding management positions. Expert power is situational. Consider a situation where a client service manager has to communicate with a client who only speaks Portuguese. The manager doesn’t speak Portuguese, but fortunately there is an associate who is fluent. In this scenario, expert power lies with the associate, as the manager is relying on the associate’s expertise in Portuguese to handle the situation.
Despite the associate’s situational expert power, the manager still has expert power on operational issues. If an unfamiliar situation materializes during the associate’s interaction with the client, the manager’s knowledge will be required. Though the associate holds expert power when it comes to translating the client’s concerns, the manager hasn’t lost expertise in operational issues. The manager is able to use expert power to guide the associate, who acts according to the manager’s instructions to handle the issue.
Further studies on expert power have shown that it is one of the more effective social powers when used as a persuasion tool.5 Researchers have described expert power as a soft power tactic ( persuasion that occurs by using non-aggressive tactics, such as appeal or attraction). Targets tend to receive expert power and other soft power tactics more favorably than hard power tactics, which generally involve coercive measures. In the workplace, targets’ compliance with expert power is dependent on their intrinsic motivations, desire to get ahead, and level of self-esteem.
Expert power can be beneficial in fostering cooperation between businesses in a supply chain. In this system, acquiring cutting-edge technology and knowledge allows a business to yield expert power.6 When this expertise is shared, it provides an incentive for target firms to be influenced, since target firms want to benefit from the expertise too. Thus, the exchange of expertise builds the target firms’ trust in the expert business. In turn, the relationship between buyer and supplier businesses is strengthened. As long as the objectives of the target businesses align with those of the influencing business, expert power is beneficial in increasing coordination in a supply chain.
Despite its effectiveness in influencing targets, expert power can also create detrimental results. Like all power, expert power can cloud an individual’s judgment by fostering a sense of pride. Overzealous pride can result in an expert losing sight of the domain their expertise lies in, leading them to apply their knowledge to irrelevant fields.7 If an expert’s overconfidence in their expertise leads them to tinker in fields outside of their scope, this can lead to avoidable and costly mistakes.
Another nuanced criticism of expert power is highlighted by Stephen Turner, a professor at the University of South Florida. Turner argues that expert power can create concerns when it comes to equality and democracy. This can occur when a lack of expertise is used as an excuse to exclude the opinions of the population, leading to technocratic rule. 8
Consider nuclear waste management: Experts in this field may use expert power to manage a population’s beliefs on the safety and environmental consequences related to the disposal of radioactive waste. Experts may make the population think this complex topic is out of the reach of the public’s democratic control, simply because the public doesn’t have the appropriate knowledge to fully understand these scientific issues. This is problematic. Turner argues that activities of this nature, with important environmental and social consequences, require public scrutiny to ensure there is accountability.8
Expert power and referent power in sales
One of the biggest challenges for salespeople is effectively winning the trust of customers. To combat this, researchers have explored how French and Raven’s bases of social power can enable a salesperson to gain a client’s trust. In Paul Busch and David Wilson’s 1976 study, they found that a salesperson’s perceived expertise plays the largest role in gaining a customer’s trust.9 When examining the customers’ agreement rates with salespeople, it is clear that a salesperson’s expert power is key in closing sales.
Thus Bush and Wilson propose that sales training should prioritize product knowledge, as it helps build stronger expert power, which leads to more sales. Similarly, Bush and Wilson suggest salespeople should focus on communicating their expertise to customers, as it can have a significant effect on building the trust needed to close sales.9
Related TDL Content
Why are we so easily influenced by celebrities that we admire? We find ourselves being influenced by their fashion, music, lifestyle, or even the brands they are paid to market. Referent power is one possible explanation. In this piece, you can learn why we are so susceptible to influencers, and how you can harness this ability for yourself.
One of French and Raven’s bases of social power, reward power, uses incentives to influence the behavior of others. This piece by The Decision Lab explores the science behind reward power, specifically how monetary rewards by investigating its effect on our behavior.
- French, J. R. P., Jr., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150–167). Univer. Michigan.
- French and raven’s five forms of power: – Understanding where power comes from in the workplace. (n.d.). MindTools. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_56.htm
- Raven, B. H. (1992). A power/interaction model of interpersonal influence: French and Raven thirty years later. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 7(2), 217–244.
- Bertram H. Raven (1926-2020). (2020, March 2). UCLA Department of Psychology. https://www.psych.ucla.edu/news/bertram-h-raven-1926-2020/
- Pierro, A., Cicero, L., & Raven, B. H. (2008). Motivated compliance with bases of social power. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(7), 1921–1944. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2008.00374.x
- Belaya, V., & Hanf, J. H. (2016). The dark and the bright side of power: Implications for the management of business-to-business relationships. Agricultural and Food Economics, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40100-016-0062-9
- Metcalf, M. (n.d.). Expert power: How you can amplify your workplace clout the ethical way. Fingerprint for Success. https://www.fingerprintforsuccess.com/blog/expert-power#toc-section-6
- Turner, S. (2001). What is the problem with experts? Social Studies of Science, 31(1), 123-149. https://doi.org/10.1177/030631201031001007
- Busch, P., & Wilson, D. T. (1976). An experimental analysis of a salesman’s expert and referent bases of social power in the buyer-seller dyad. Journal of Marketing Research, 13(1), 3–11. https://doi.org/10.2307/3150896