Power is often defined as the ability to influence key players in the decision-making process to achieve a goal. In other words, power means getting what one wants.

Project managers can sometimes feel powerless because they lack the powers of functional managers, such as hiring and firing. While true, they are not as powerless as they think. According to management theorists John French and Bertram Raven, five different sources of power exist. Each applies to vary extents to the project manager.

Coercive power

Coercive power uses fear as a primary tool. It involves inflicting punishment. Project managers usually have little coercive power in an overt sense. On a more subtle level, however, they may not assign certain people to coveted tasks, not invite them to meetings, or not communicate with them.

Reward power

Reward power uses positive financial and non-monetary tools. Most project managers lack the power to use monetary incentives. However, they can provide feedback to functional managers on performance, which in turn provides a basis for determining salary increases. Project managers can also pay for training and dispense other perks. From a non-monetary perspective, they can reward people by assigning them to high-visibility tasks, as well as involve them in the decision-making process.

Legitimate power

Legitimate power is the authority granted by the institution. In other words, such power allows managers to “order” people with the full backing of the institution. Project managers, especially in a matrix environment, lack this power - they must use other power sources. Still, they have some legitimate power, especially if they have the political support of a powerful senior manager.

Expert power

Expert power is based on a person’s knowledge credentials, expertise, or education. Project managers are often chosen for these characteristics and they gain considerable power in this regard. The only problem is that project managers often become narrowly focused, failing to see the big picture and working on other key areas. In addition, they have power only as long as people respect those characteristics.

Referent power

Referent power is based on trait theory - that is, a person’s characteristics. These project managers have certain characteristics that make people want to follow them. An example of such a trait is charisma.