Increasing Your Personal Power as a Project Manager

In order to earn the Six Sigma Black Belt Certificate, our students are required to plan and execute a real world project that results in measurable improvement.  To help them to be more successful, I challenge them to find ways to increase the amount of personal power that they have as the manager of their project.

In the course of planning and executing a project, the project manager will need to influence any number of people to perform tasks and activities that are important to the success of the project.  Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven completed a notable study that identified these five sources of power that the project manager may employ to exert influence:

  1. Reward power, based on the perception that the project manager has the ability to offer or deny tangible rewards.
  2. Coercive power, based on the perception that the project manager has the ability to use of the threat of force to gain compliance.
  3. Legitimate power, based on the perception that the project manager has a legitimate right to direct behavior. This power comes from being elected, selected or appointed to a position of responsibility.
  4. Referent power, based on how strongly the person identifies with the project manager.
  5. Expert power, based on the perception that the project manager has some special knowledge or expertise.

Several years after their initial study, French and Raven added a sixth source of power, informational.  This is the power to bring about change through the use of information.

Reward power is increased when the project manager is able to provide input to formal performance appraisals.   Reward power is also increased when the project manager has the authority to grant informal or token awards that recognize contributions to the project.  Examples might be tickets to sporting or entertainment events, or a gift certificate to a restaurant.  The bigger the magnitude of the rewards and the higher the probability that the project manager can deliver the rewards, the greater the power.

Coercive power is used to punish those who do not meet expectations.  The larger the negative potential consequences and the higher the probability that the project manager can deliver the consequences, the greater the power.  Coercive power can take the form of physical threats, monetary penalties or dismissal.  The threat of rejection or disapproval is also a form of coercive power.

Legitimate power is vested in the position that the project manager holds in the organization.  The higher the position, the greater the legitimate power.  Legitimate power is increased when the project is chartered by the executives in the organization and the charter clearly delineates the power and authority that has been granted to the project manager.  The assignment of a high level Project Champion also lends legitimate power to the project, as the Champion brings his or her own positional power to the project.  Elected officials such as union representatives and elected government officials have legitimate power that may be leveraged on some projects.

Referent power comes from how well liked and respected the project manager is, and from how strongly people desire to be part of the team.  If the project manager has a reputation of outstanding performance on prestigious projects, referent power is increased.  People may also wish to perform for the project manager because they share the same beliefs and values.

Expert power comes from knowledge, experience and skill.  A project manager can increase his or her personal power by becoming better educated, by earning professional credentials such as the Project Management Professional certification, and by developing skills in a variety of areas related to project management and continuous improvement.  Also, the project manager can select team members who have expertise, experience and skill that contribute to completing the project successfully.

Informational power comes from controlling the flow of knowledge that others need or want.

Your comments or questions about this article are welcome, as are suggestions for future articles.  Feel free to contact me by email at

About the author:  Mr. Roger C. Ellis is an industrial engineer by training and profession.  He is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 50 years of business experience in a wide range of fields.  Mr. Ellis develops and instructs Six Sigma professional certification courses for Key Performance LLC.   For a more detailed biography, please refer to