Building Expert Power

Lead From the Front, at Work

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There are many different power bases that a leader can use and exploit.

These include problematic ones such as the power of position, the power to give rewards, the power to punish and the power to control information. While these types of power do have some strength, they put the person being lead in an unhealthy position of weakness, and can leave leaders using these power bases looking autocratic and out of touch.

More than this, society has changed hugely over the last 50 years. Citizens are individually more powerful, and employees are more able to shift jobs. Few of us enjoy having power exerted over us, and many will do what they can to undermine people who use these sorts of power.

However there are three types of positive power that effective leaders use: charismatic power, expert power and referent power  .

This article teaches the technique of building expert power.

Using the Tool

Expert power is essential because as a leader, your team looks to you for direction and guidance. Team members need to believe in your ability to set a worthwhile direction, give sound guidance and co-ordinate a good result.

If your team perceives you as a true expert, they will listen to you when you try to persuade them or inspire them. And if your team sees you as an expert, you will find it much easier to energize and motivate them:

  • If your team members respect your expertise, they'll know that you can show them how to work effectively.
  • If your team members trust your judgment, they'll trust you to guide their good efforts and hard work in such a way that you'll make the most of their hard work.
  • If they can see your expertise, team members will believe that you have the wisdom to direct their efforts towards a goal that is genuinely worthwhile.

Taken together, if your team sees you as an expert, you will find it much easier to motivate team members to perform at their best.

So how do you build expert power?

The first step is fairly obvious (if time consuming) – build expertise  . And, if you are already using tools like the information gathering tool  , chances are that you have already progressed well ahead in this direction.

But just being an expert isn't enough, it is also necessary for your team members to recognize your expertise and see you to be a credible source of information and advice. Gary A. Yukl, in his book "Leadership in Organizations," details some steps to build expert power. These are:

  • Promote an image of expertise: Since perceived expertise in many occupations is associated with a person's education and experience, a leader should (subtly) make sure that subordinates, peers, and superiors are aware of his or her formal education, relevant work experience, and significant accomplishments.

    One common tactic to make this information known is to display diplomas, licenses, awards, and other evidence of expertise in a prominent location in one's office – after all, if you've worked hard to gain knowledge, it's fair that you get credit for it. Another tactic is to make subtle references to prior education or experience (e.g., "When I was chief engineer at GE, we had a problem similar to this one"). Beware, however, this tactic can easily be overdone.

  • Maintain credibility: Once established, one's image of expertise should be carefully protected. The leader should avoid making careless comments about subjects on which he or she is poorly informed, and should avoid being associated with projects with a low likelihood of success.
  • Act confidently and decisively in a crisis: In a crisis or emergency, subordinates prefer a "take charge" leader who appears to know how to direct the group in coping with the problem. In this kind of situation, subordinates tend to associate confident, firm leadership with expert knowledge. Even if the leader is not sure of the best way to deal with a crisis, to express doubts or appear confused risks the loss of influence over subordinates.
  • Keep informed: Expert power is exercised through rational persuasion and demonstration of expertise. Rational persuasion depends on a firm grasp of up-to-date facts. It is therefore essential for a leader to keep well-informed of developments within the team, within the organization, and in the outside world.
  • Recognize subordinate concerns: Use of rational persuasion should not be seen as a form of one-way communication from the leader to subordinates. Effective leaders listen carefully to the concerns and uncertainties of their team members, and make sure that they address these.
  • Avoid threatening the self-esteem of subordinates: Expert power is based on a knowledge differential between leader and team members. Unfortunately, the very existence of such a differential can cause problems if the leader is not careful about the way he exercises expert power.

    Team members can dislike unfavorable status comparisons where the gap is very large and obvious. They are likely to be upset by a leader who acts in a superior way, and arrogantly flaunts his greater expertise.

    In the process of presenting rational arguments, some leaders lecture their team members in a condescending manner and convey the impression that the other team members are "ignorant." Guard against this.

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Comments (7)
  • Yolande wrote This week
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts cpodshadley. We'd love to hear more of your thoughts and insights on the Mind Tools forums. Hope to see you on Career Cafe Central soon - you'll find it over here:

    Mind Tools Team
  • cpodshadley wrote This week
    Expert Power can only take one so far by itself. This attribute needs to be complimented with others to be a powerful leader. It would seem unreasonable to think that one can always be a SME in every situation with today's changing environment.
  • Iyesaga wrote Over a month ago
    Educate yourself, that is what I am doing now and I hope it will work for me too.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Jo,
    Interesting thought here the more we know the more we know we don't know On a certain level, I agree with you. If I think back to when I was 20, then 30, then 40 ... I used to think I knew it all! Yet, with each passing decade, I realized that I didn't know anything compared to what I previously thought I knew.

    Yet, on another level, with time and experience we do become recognized as 'experts' simply by the fact that we know more than perhaps others around us. Or rather, we know more and are speaking up and sharing it.

    I know with my coaching business, I do have a certain level of knowledge and expertise simply by the fact that I have worked in a particular area for some time. Yet, I also know that there are others out there who probably know more than I do ... so that keeps me humble!

    What do you think about the idea of an expert being 'arrogant' versus 'humble'?

  • brisbane_artist wrote Over a month ago
    I never think of expert power this way. The idea of having a subordinate just doesn't quite sit with me. Don't you think that the more we know the more we know we don't know?
    If we are truly expert what happens is that we become more aware of how to release the expert in others.
    Food for thought here!
  • Bree wrote Over a month ago
    Thanks James for reminding me of a great article!

    I particularly liked the point about maintaining credibitility by avoiding careless comments. It's almost like maintaining impecible behaviour as a leader. Acting like a leader would act, and never saying negative things about other people or situations. A leader ican be perceived as the example for the company ... so almost faultless, while still being human.

    Makes me stop and think about my behaviour and the things I say - both to work colleagues and to friends.

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    This is an excellent article. Two things stood out for me: Maintaining credibility and avoiding to threaten the self-esteem of subordinates. The first - a leader without credibility is no leader.... Who likes to follow someone without credibility? Secondly, the minute someone feels 'threatened' or gets a blow to their self-esteem, they are less co-operative, less productive and often a 'wild card' with regards to the effect that they have on the rest of the team.
    Many thanks - much to 'take home' from this article!


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