Coercive power is a type of threatening power. Coercive power is, by definition, the ability of someone or some group to control or influence others through the use of threats, punishment, or physical force.
What Is Coercive Power?
Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven first defined the term coercive power in 1959. It is a type of power that requires obvious dominance over another person. This type of power works through fear or threat of loss. This fear compels others to behave in a certain way, regardless of their own will or interests. Coercive power has been used by governments, law enforcement, managers and across organizations.
Historically, coercive power has been used in order to maintain structure and enforce laws and rules. It’s a common tactic used by law enforcement and in prisons and in those cases may involve violence. Coercive power is found to be the opposite of reward power. Instead of encouraging results with rewards, one threatens poor results with punishment. It could be characterized as a negative type of power. Take this Types Of Power Quiz to assess if you use referent power, reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, expert power or information power.
Coercive power does not need to be spelled out; it can either be direct or implied. Direct coercive power is an upfront and known punishment, obviously enforceable. Whereas implied coercive power is something that a person imagines will happen if they do or don’t do something. For example, direct coercive power could be suspending a student from school for tardiness from class. Alternatively, implied coercive power could be showing up for class early every day for fear of angering the teacher and getting suspended.
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Coercive Power Example In The Corporate World
In business, coercive power refers to threats, punishments, and intimidation, usually by a supervisor or manager to an employee. But, it can also be implied within the corporate structure and culture as a whole. An organization can be coercive, just as an individual manager can be coercive. What coercive power looks like within a supervisor-employee relationship is management through threats of loss of job, or demotion, or unpleasant jobs or tasks as punishment, as a day-to-day management style. Coercive power in business can also take other forms, such as imposing fines, giving out penalties, or termination of contracts. At the extreme, it can also involve the use of legal means to enforce compliance. Threats of lawsuits or regulatory action serve the same purpose.
This type of power can also be used at the highest level, the corporate level, to coerce suppliers, customers, or competitors to comply with demands or to achieve certain objectives. Coercive power tends to lead to an unhealthy work environment, lower employee morale, and decrease productivity. It's generally not an effective long-term strategy for organizations, as it can harm relationships and ultimately damage the reputation of the company. You can assess if your leadership style is at risk of relying too much on coercive power with the test What’s Your Leadership Style?
The Coercive Culture
While short-term use of coercive power can result in initial compliance and obedience, the long term consequences often do not outweigh the short term gains. In the long term, coercive cultures have been found to breed resentment, distrust, and decreased motivation. A coercive culture doesn’t engender trust. In fact, quite the opposite. The negative impact on relationships and reputation can be especially damaging for businesses that rely on good relationships with stakeholders for success. The research shows that it is often more effective for organizations to use other forms of power, such as persuasive or informational power, to achieve their goals. You can see what type of organizational culture your company has with the test What’s Your Organizational Culture?
When coercive power is used in supervisor-employee relations, it can create a negative and hostile work environment, because employees feel dehumanized and that they are not trusted or valued. In such workplaces, job satisfaction is reported to be low, attachment to the job role and company is also low, and motivation is based almost exclusively on fear. This, in turn, leads to higher turnover rates and difficulties in attracting and retaining talent.
When coercive power is used in business relationships, it harms trust, confidence, and cooperation. [You can test your communication style here]. Customers and vendors may choose to take their business elsewhere, if possible. When other businesses and customers are fearful, it leads to a breakdown in communication and a decrease in collaboration.
The Weaknesses of Coercive Power
Supervisors and organizations that utilize coercive power are likely to create a hostile work environment that pits the employees against the management team. Low employee morale is common, and the end result is decreased productivity and output. Additionally, employees who feel mistreated or undervalued want to exit the organization, seeking out employment elsewhere. High turnover rates and difficulties in attracting and retaining talent are common.
Coercive power can also cause individuals to pull away from the organization, and to not identify with its goals and objectives. This distancing is not good for productivity. The use of coercive power is negatively correlated with commitment and engagement among employees, as individuals report not feeling invested in their work or the organization. Finally, organizations that rely on coercive power are seen as inflexible, and are more likely to be so. They may find it difficult adapting to change and embracing new ideas. At the same time, workers become inflexible, if they survive. Those who remain may not feel free to express their opinions or to challenge the status quo. In short, the use of coercive power erodes the sense of community and teamwork within an organization. Individuals are not individuals, as they are made to feel like interchangeable pawns. They perceive that they are not supported or valued by their colleagues or superiors. Coercive power structure in an organization can be quite toxic.
Coercive Power Advantages
The biggest reasons that supervisors or organizations use coercive power is for compliance and obedience, maintaining order, quick adherence and results, and deterrence of unwanted behavior. It might make sense in an organization where there are high risks and dangers, to have employees follow very strict rules. For example, in a plant where there are dangerous substances and everything must be strictly adhered to, a more coercive structure might make sense with regards to the importance of no mistakes. It can deter short cuts and taking risks in an environment where risks can be detrimental or even fatal.
However, it should be noted that these strengths are often outweighed by the negative consequences and long-term effects of using coercive power. While hard and fast adherence to rules may be achieved quickly, it may not be sustainable in the long term. Workers as individuals may resent the use of coercion, as they have little reason to “buy in” and feel less motivated and engaged.
Building Coercive Power
For those instances where is makes sense to use coercive power, there are ways to build it. First and foremost, one should establish clear rules and regulations, and enforce them consistently. Second, building a reputation for being tough and uncompromising increases a person’s coercive power. For organizations, alliances with other individuals or organizations that have coercive power can actually increase one's own ability to utilize coercive power. Finally, having control over resources, such as money or information, is important to coercive power. The more control one has, the stronger the power.
In the end, coercive power should be used with caution, and only in very distinct circumstances. Having your workforce participate in an employee engagement survey can be a quick way to assess if employees are suffering ill effects from too much coercive power by leadership and managers.
Increasing coercive power can lead to more negative consequences than positive. And, it is better in the short term than the long term. Increased use of coercive power leads to decreased trust, cooperation, and motivation. At its worst, the use of coercion can be illegal or unethical, and this might result in legal consequences for the organization. Therefore, it is important to consider all of the potential future outcomes when using coercive power. It would be wise to seek alternative means of achieving one's goals whenever possible.
You can take this Types Of Power Quiz to assess if you use referent power, reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, expert power or information power.