The Basic Idea
Usually, we wouldn’t let someone stop us in the street and search through our bag. In airports, however, the story changes. We allow security guards to search through our bags and pockets, tell us where to go, and even to stop us from getting on the plane. Why do we think they’re allowed to act like this?
This is a form of legitimate power. Power in any instance involves one individual changing their actions or beliefs because of another individual’s actions. In cases of legitimate power, we change our actions or beliefs because we believe the other person has legitimate authority over us.¹ This authority is based on the position or status of the person. Airport security guards get to tell us what to do in the airport precisely because they’re airport security guards.
Legitimate power can be found at all levels of society. On one hand, presidents and monarchs wield legitimate power supported by legal systems and police forces. On the other hand, a high school volleyball coach holds legitimate power over members of the team. Even CEOs, military officers and directors all exercise legitimate power over others in order to achieve their goals.
At its core, legitimate power relates to hierarchies.¹ When someone is above us in a hierarchy, their position allows them to tell us what to do. This, in turn, gives those lower in the ladder good reason to follow along. Importantly, an individual holds legitimate power in virtue of their position, as opposed to any distinct personal qualities.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Power – Across disciplines and frameworks, there are many ways to conceptualize power.2 In behavioral science, power exists when an individual experiences cognitive, emotional or behavioral changes due to another individual’s actions, implying power of the latter.
Hard Power3 – Power enforced by explicit laws and regulations, such as the laws of a state.
Soft Power3 – Power based on social norms and expectations. An example would be following the advice of a doctor.
Agent – an individual or organization capable of self-directed behavior. Power is exerted by agents over other agents, causing the affected to think or act in a non-self-directed way.
After WWII, standard ideas about power and authority were in turmoil. Writing in 1959¹, psychologists John French & Betram Raven proposed five (later six) “bases of social power” to illuminate how power is exerted between people, institutions and governments. The six bases are:
- Coercive – e.g., punishment
- Reward – e.g., rewarding a child with candy
- Legitimate – e.g., following orders in the military
- Referent – e.g., following a charismatic spiritual leader
- Expert – e.g., following a doctor’s advice
- Informational – e.g., censorship
French & Raven’s typology drew upon the fields of social psychology and organizational theory, both of which had developed during the first half of the 1900s. Given the political developments of the previous 20 years, legitimate power was a topic of particular interest. However, French & Raven’s power typology was unique in that it explored power (including legitimate power) as it manifests throughout society—not just at the level of the state.
The theory was later expanded by Raven in 1992.4 He proposed the “Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence’. Essentially, the model explores how an agent’s motivations and goals influence the power base they employ. For example, an art gallery director who wants to be liked by others might sometimes avoid using their legitimate power, in order to avoid being perceived negatively. In contrast, an overly goal-driven agent might extensively lean on legitimate power, disregarding the effect it might have on their personal relationships.
French & Raven’s typology of power is usually considered foundational, and it can be found in nearly every textbook on organizational behavior and social psychology.5 The concept of legitimate power has been deployed in a wide range of contexts, including tax agencies6, moral objection in the workplace7, community events8 and marketing channels9.
An American psychologist who began to develop his interest in group dynamics during his time as a Harvard graduate student. This interest led to a dissertation on group cohesion under stressful conditions.10 During his career, he became a prominent voice in the field of social psychology, serving as programme director at the Research Center for Group Dynamics in the late 1940’s. In addition to his joint theories on power, French also produced research into workplace mental health and the links between psychological and physical conditions.
After completing his PhD in social psychology, Raven had a successful academic career that saw him become Director of the UCLA Survey Research Center. His work focused on interpersonal influence and social power relations, and he was a pioneer in connecting psychological theory with social action. Along with French, Raven is best known for the “bases of social power” theory. His focus on applied research can be seen in the theory’s application to many social and organizational contexts.
Understanding power is important, not just for understanding how society works, but how leaders who hold legitimate power can improve.
Legitimate power has been empirically linked to desirable outcomes in a range of contexts. In a 2012 study,11 researchers found that high levels of legitimate power amongst Taiwanese dealer firms increased their trustworthiness and formed strong relationships with other SMEs. However, the study also found that referent power had an even more positive impact on trust and relationships.
The study also highlights how different types of power are more effective in different contexts.
But we should be careful not to generalize: the phrase “different contexts” is broad, including organizational norms, work culture, individuals’ psychology, and much more.
For example, while legitimate power may be useful for a military officer who needs orders to be followed unquestioningly, it might be less useful for a local community leader, as they tend to be part of less rigid hierarchies. Instead, they might employ their referent power. Understanding the situational effectiveness of legitimate power is important for managers and leaders, so that effective leadership tactics can be employed.
History is littered with cases of legitimate power gone wrong. Because this type of power is based on the position of the agent, people with bad ideas, attributes or morals can use legitimate power to exert their desires. Many of the 21st century’s atrocities can be pinned on “legitimate power gone wrong”, particularly in the cases of authoritarian state leadership.
These are, of course, extreme examples. But legitimate power can also lead to bad outcomes in everyday contexts. This usually occurs when an individual is given a position of legitimate power without having the necessary skills or experience to back it up. Consider a restaurant manager who is not up to the task. Because they exercise legitimate power in their restaurant, other employees have to follow their orders. This might result in poor service delivery, as well frustration —and reduced performance—among team members.
The use of legitimate power has been empirically linked12 (in certain contexts) to a range of negative outcomes that can reduce productivity. Although initially dependable, legitimate power must be supplemented over time with interpersonal relationships. Otherwise, leaders risk causing dissatisfaction among employees—no one likes to be bossed around! Similarly, if legitimate power does not coincide with expert power (as in the example above) there may be negative effects on productivity amongst subordinates. Finally, over-dependence on legitimate power might create minimal compliance and feelings of resistance among subordinates.
The research surrounding legitimate power has also faced some methodological critique. A 1985 paper notes how different interpretations of legitimate power have led to the development of multiple scales for measuring legitimate power.5 While the authors show a general amount of agreement between different interpretations, they highlight the need for more research into the construct validity of legitimate power.
Legitimate Power, Tax Compliance & Trust
In 2014, a group of researchers conducted a study into the effects of legitimate power on tax compliance.⁶ The study was conducted with the goal of identifying which power tactics are most effective at getting people to pay their taxes, focussing especially on coercive and legitimate power.
To investigate the topic, the researchers conducted two studies. The first looked into the separate effects of coercive power and legitimate power on tax compliance. Participants (n=62) were given fictitious descriptions of tax agencies, which had either high or low coercive power (e.g. sanctions). They were then asked to respond to the questions measuring their intended tax compliance, trust, and other factors. This procedure was then repeated for another group of participants (n=78) in which the fake tax agencies had either high or low legitimate power.
The analysis revealed that both high coercive and legitimate power increased intended tax compliance, a result predicted by the authors, and neither type of power was seen to increase tax compliance more than the other. An important secondary finding was that tax agencies with high legitimate power contributed to higher levels of trust and voluntary cooperation.
The second study was conducted to test the combined impact of coercive and legitimate power. Following the same procedure, the authors established that a combination of high coercive and high legitimate power is the most effective at increasing tax compliance. They also show that, while tax agencies with low legitimate power and high coercive power were not so effective at increasing compliance, those with high legitimate and low coercive power were. The authors argue that the trust and voluntary cooperation associated with legitimate power explain these results.
This study helps build our understanding of the effects of legitimate power, as well as suggesting ways in which it may be used in combination with other power tactics to produce the best results.
Related TDL Content
As this article highlighted, legitimate power is not the only way agents can exert power over others. For an in depth look at another of French & Raven’s “Social Bases of Power”, check out this article, where we take a look at referent power.
Our perceptions of what makes a good leader shift as new research and perspectives are developed. This article explores the idea that leaders are effective based on what they do, not who they are. We also dive into how this idea has impacted research into leadership and organizational theory.
- French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7, 311-320.
- Cartwright, D. and Zander, A. (1953) Group Dynamics: Research and Theory. Row, Peterson, Evanston.
- Pierro, A., Raven, B. H., Amato, C., & Bélanger, J. J. (2013). Bases of social power, leadership styles, and organizational commitment. International Journal of Psychology, 48(6), 1122-1134.
- 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.
- Podsakoff, P. M., & Schriescheim, C. A. (1985). Field studies of French and Raven’s bases of power: Critique, reanalysis, and suggestions for future research. Psychological Bulletin 1985, Vol. 97, No. 3,387-411
- Hofmann, E., Gangl, K., Kirchler, E., & Stark, J. (2014). Enhancing Tax Compliance through Coercive and Legitimate Power of Tax Authorities by Concurrently Diminishing or Facilitating Trust in Tax Authorities. Law & policy, 36(3), 290-313.
- Wellman, N., Mayer, D. M., Ong, M., & DeRue, D. S. (2016). When are do-gooders treated badly? Legitimate power, role expectations, and reactions to moral objection in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(6), 793.
- Batty, R. J. (2016). Understanding stakeholder status and legitimate power exertion within community sport events: A case study of the Christchurch (New Zealand) City to Surf. In Managing and developing communities, festivals and events (pp. 103-119). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
- Ketilson, L. H. (1991). An examination of the use of legitimate power in marketing channels. International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 1(5), 527-548.
- John French – Wikipedia Entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_R._P._French#:~:text=John%20R.%20P.%20French%20-%20Wikipedia%20John%20R.,as%20professor%20emeritus%20at%20the%20University%20of%20Michigan.
- Chinomona, R. (2012). The influence of dealers’ referent power and legitimate power in Guanxi distribution networks: The case of Taiwan’s SME firms. African Journal of Business Management, 6(37), 10125-10137.
- Lunenburg, F. C. (2012). Power and leadership: An influence process. International journal of management, business, and administration, 15(1), 1-9.