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  The Powers of the Project Manager

One of the important topics for the PMP exam is "The Powers of the Project Manager". There's quite a bit of confusion on this topic specially because some of the powers are referred to by more than one name. And then the question - Which is the best form of power for a project manager? - comes up quite frequently.

Last week I uploaded 25 new flashcards on this topic to BrainBOK. During the course of developing the flashcards, I compiled some notes on the topic that I'm sharing with you in this post. I believe that all you need to know about this topic for the PMP exam is available in this short article.

Last Update: Feb 7, 2016

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5 Basic Forms of Power of a Project Manager

There are 5 basic forms of powers that a Project Manager can possess:
  • Legitimate (or Formal): The formal authority or power derived from the position. It is also known as Formal power.

  • Reward: The power of directly or indirectly rewarding the team member. Rewards may be in the form of salary, promotion, bonus or better work assignments.

  • Penalty (or Coercive / Punishment): The power of directly or indirectly penalizing the team members. Penalty may be in the form of suspension, reprimand, unpleasant assignments etc. It is also known as Coercive power and Punishment power.

  • Expert: The power derived from special knowledge or expertise.

  • Referent (or Charisma): The power derived from personality traits or charisma. It is also known as Charisma power.

Positional Powers vs Personal Powers

Positional powers are derived from the position of the project manager. Legitimate, Reward and Penalty powers are positional powers.

Personal powers are derived from the knowledge, expertise or personality traits of the project manager. Expert and Referent powers are personal powers.

Total Power

Total power = Positional Powers + Personal Powers

Power vs Authority

Power is the ability to get things done, whereas Authority is the formal power derived from one's position in the organization.

Which is the best form of power for a Project Manager?

The best form of power depends upon the situation and the maturity level of the project manager. Generally speaking, personal powers (Expert and Referent) are better than positional powers (Legitimate, Reward and Penalty).

Additional notes:
  • Reputation of the project manager is an example of Expert power.
  • Penalty power is unlikely to buy commitment from team members.
  • Expert and Referent powers are most effective in getting commitment from team members.
  • Legitimate and Reward powers are most effective in getting compliance from team members.
  • Functional managers hold more power than project managers in a matrix organization because the functional managers control human resources directly and provide a permanent home for project personnel to return to after completion of the project.
  • Penalty power is the worst choice in most situations.
  • The Project Charter grants formal powers to a Project Manager.

I hope you find this article useful. Feel free to add your notes if you think I missed something important. And be sure to review the flashcards on this topic on BrainBOK.

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The Human Aspects of Project Management: Human Resources Skills for the Project Manager, Volume Two - by Vijay K. Verma

Project Management A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, Tenth Edition - by Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.

Image credit: Flickr / cliff1066

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  1. Harwinder,

    Excellent post! I'm a recent PMP that is doing a bit of voluntary work helping a group to achieve their PMP certification, and I'm recommending your blog as an excellent resource that helped me in getting the certificate.

    Thanks for your efforts and clarity.



  2. Thanks Gustavo for your kind remarks and gesture.

  3. Maybe you can find a better picture?

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Anonymous. I'll try :)

  5. reputation isn't an example of referent power?

  6. Hello Anonymous,

    Reputation is earned and is not really a personality trait (something that comes naturally). From that perspective, reputation is not a referent power.

    Let me know whether you agree.


    1. Reputation could be good or bad. It can be personal or professional. The PM is aggressive and short-tempered is a personal reputation while the PM can have a reputation of good technical skills or PM skills which is professional and at the same time they can be negative as well.

      How can we put them as Expertise in this case. It could be referrant as well.

  7. The article provides a good knowledge on the powers of Project Manager which is required for the PMP certification.

    Personal Power describes your internal ability that you have, such as character, strength, persistence, patience and intelligence.

  8. My understanding is that Expert and Reward power is the best power in a Project Manager. Correct me if wrong.

  9. I like the picture (of the lady super hero). I think it's cute. And yes, I'm a guy...

  10. Can somebody answer it.
    During the planning phase of a project, your team members find another way to complete a portion of the project. This method is safer for the project team but the cost may go up. This is an example of _____?

    1. Alternative Identification

    2. Risk Assessment

    3. Alternative Selection

    4. Product Analysis

  11. I am a PMP Aspirant and going to take my exam on this 29th.

    I think the answer of this question is "1. Alternative Identification"

    This is clearly not Product Analysis and neither the alternative has been selected, therefore, choices 3 and 4 are eliminated.
    Risk Assessment is always done from the perspective of risk for the project and not for the project team, which indicates that the team is not doing Risk Assessment. Choice 2 has been eliminated.
    So, the best answer is Choice 1. Alternative Identification

  12. i like the picture of the lady super hero.
    and i love this article. Great article keep going.

  13. great post very usefull to readers keep posting :)

  14. i think you can find a better picture!!! :)


  15. I was always unclear about these powers, however looks like this article solved my confusion:)

  16. In a matrix org, like weak matrix, what is the best form of power that the PM can have? I think it is Referent or Expert, let me know if there is any other viewpoint.


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