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Authorized to Manage – Referent Authority (#3 in the series Authorized to Manage)
By Thomas Cutting

This is the third in a series looking at Positional, Referent, Reward/Penalty and Expert types of authority, their use, abuse and challenges.

Character matters.

Referent Authority.

Referent Authority is the ability to influence others through your charisma, personality and charm. People are drawn to personalities. They like working for good natured, caring managers that take an interest in them for more than the hours they can bill. Interesting, though, some people are drawn to managers on the dark side. They see it as power and are drawn to it like moths to a flame.

As much as positional authority is about politics, referent authority is social in nature. It is more than your charming personality; it is the way people perceive you. Managers with higher levels of this type of authority are characterized as strong, hard working, just, even keeled or able. Lesser managers are those that appear indecisive, lacking in confidence, angry, hard to work with or easily pushed over.

One way to gain referent authority is to be helpful. One of my resources is working toward his Green Card status. There are very few papers I actually need to complete, but I am able to push the HR personnel and have hand delivered some of the signatures from other managers. Even just calling him to make sure nothing is stuck somewhere in process can show that I value him.

Appropriate Uses

There are many ways to use your personality to make people want to help you succeed. A sense of humor can be used to defuse tension during a heated meeting. A giving attitude may bring donuts to meetings. Level headed managers don’t snap at their team, they address problems. Caring ones make it a point to know their people and handle all that touchy-feely stuff.

Abusive Uses

Some managers use their appearance and allure to try to get people to do things for them. I encountered this once while in the project officer role on an account. For one project manager, whenever an issue came up I received the sad eyed, batting eyelashes, I-didn’t-know-any-better look.

Others may attempt to draw all of the talented resources to their group. There are even those that are smarmy enough to try move up the org chart by personality alone.


The biggest problem to look out for with referent authority is being taken advantage of. Some people think nice guys are there to be used. If you come across as trying to be your team’s buddy instead of boss they may loose respect for you.

Another challenge may come as an attack on your character. Skeletons in anyone’s closet can be used against them, but even false slander can be used to kill your referent authority.

Thomas Cutting, PMP is the owner of Cutting’s Edge ( and is a speaker, writer, trainer and mentor. He offers nearly random Project Management insights from a very diverse background that covers entertainment, retail, insurance, banking, healthcare and automotive verticals. He delivers real world, practical lessons learned with a twist of humor. Thomas has spoken at PMI and PSQT Conferences and is a regular contributor to several Project Management sites. He has a blog at (

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