Revealed: The Differences Between How CEOs and Managers Wield Power

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Nov 17, 2021

When you’re trying to get executives to support your new initiative — be it informing, threatening, guilting, or pleading — you’re using some form of power.  

In today’s modern organizations, there are six major sources of power: referent, reward, coercive, legitimate, expert, and information. Nowadays, some approaches, like coercive power (which involves threatening people with punishment if they fail to conform to your demands), are frowned upon. By contrast, power sources like information power (i.e., having insights or information that others haven’t accessed) are far more preferred.

Each type of power has pluses and minuses, but an important question is which type your CEO prefers. After all, your CEO arguably holds the most cumulative power of anyone in your company, so whichever power they prioritize is likely to provide some insight into the effectiveness of the various other powers.

More than 20,000 leaders have taken the test, “Which Types of Power Do You Use?”, and the findings about CEO power specifically are quite surprising. 

One of the questions on this quiz asks respondents: “Think about an employee that you DO NOT like personally (e.g., you don’t want to spend time with them outside of work). You’re about to require them to do something that they don’t want to do (and you know they’ll be reluctant).” 

Respondents then must assess which of these statements best describes the approach they’ll take with them:

  1. There won’t be an issue because I’m their leader and they have an obligation to do what I ask.
  2. If they don’t complete this task, I will make my displeasure very clear.
  3. If they do this task for me, I’ll do something nice for them .  
  4. I know more about this than they do, so they’ll have a chance to learn from me.   
  5. I’ll make a persuasive and compelling case for why they should do what I asked.  
  6. I’ll improve our personal relationship; I’ll make them feel valued and personally accepted. 

Overall, the first four choices collectively account for about 31% of responses. These represent legitimate, coercive, reward, and expert power, respectively.  

Choice No. 5, by contrast, represents informational power and accounts for about 41% of responses. In most companies, it’s a natural response to use informational power to persuade colleagues and employees to adopt a particular change or initiative. Most leaders have long been taught to use features, benefits, and lots of data to persuade others.

Choice No. 6, which is the referent form of power, accounts for only about 29% of respondents. For many leaders, building personal relationships is seen as a less desirable source of power than providing a persuasive and compelling argument.

But when we cut this data by job roles, we discover that CEOs are far more likely to prioritize referent power (i.e., building relationships and influencing employees through trust and admiration). Specifically, CEOs are about 35% more likely to employ referent power, while other managers and executives are about 57% more likely to use informational power. 

What this tells us is that even though CEOs ostensibly have access to the most informational (and the most title-based, coercive, and reward) power, they still choose to use the power of relationships.  

Perhaps they’ve figured out that softer relational power yields better benefits. Perhaps they’ve learned that referent power engenders greater buy-in. Whatever the reason, more leaders would do well to emulate their CEOs and build up their relationships.

Now, of course, this is harder to do when everyone’s working remotely. In the study, “The State of Working From Home,” 19% of people say their relationships with work colleagues are much better working from an office, and an additional 35% say their co-worker relationships are a little better. By contrast, only 15% say their relationships with work colleagues are better working from home. 

It’s not easy to maintain, let alone build, work relationships in the current environment. But this data shows that if you want to avail yourself of the maximum amount of power and influence, you’ll need to develop and foster your work relationships. It may not be your favored source of power, but it’s the one that your CEO is likely to use. And that makes it inherently valuable.

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