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Coercive power at work: Examples, implications, and more

August 30, 2022 - 14 min read
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    Coercion: the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.

     Oxford Languages

    When employees slack off on important projects, it’s natural to want to remind them of what’s at stake for them. After all, people are, by nature, strongly motivated to look out for their own best interests. They will often respond faster to prevent a personal loss than to achieve team goals. So we lean on that button — just a little bit. Managers often use coercive power to hint that a loss of bonus, a demotion, or even unemployment awaits them if they fail to follow certain policies or meet expectations.

    It sounds extreme, but does it work? Of course! Think about a workplace where staff know that the punishment for harassment is termination and a lawsuit. Fewer people would risk harassing coworkers because they realize it’s no longer about social responsibility — they have something at stake. If people know that you’ll enforce punishment, coercive power is effective.

    But should you use it every time? And is it sustainable in the long term? Read on to learn what coercive power is, how to identify it, and the pros and cons of leading with coercive power.

    What is coercive power?

    Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven first categorized coercive power as a form of social power in 1959. That’s because coercive power always requires action from an external agent — a boss, parent, or leader — to induce change. 

    Unlike personal power, which individuals can wield over themselves, people cannot use coercive power on themselves. Other forms of power people can’t use on themselves include referent power, reward power, and legitimate power.

    Coercive power is the opposite of reward power. Where you promise rewards to encourage results with reward power, you threaten punishment with coercive power. Organizations that stack rank employees often use both types of power. The employees who follow instructions and achieve results get rewarded. The ones who don’t get punished.

    Types of coercive power

    The two types of coercive power are direct and indirect coercive power. While direct coercive power is a true threat, indirect coercive power can only be imagined or implied.

    Say you ask an employee to work overtime to complete tasks or face punishment; that’s direct coercive power. When employees work overtime to catch up because they think they’ll get punished, that’s indirect coercive power.

    Identifying coercive power

    Power, no matter the type, can be subtle and hard to identify. However, these characteristics often show up to identify coercive power.

    • Dictatorial control

    A leader who wields coercive power will often set and control work processes, creative ideas, and repercussions alone.

    With coercive power, communication is rarely two ways. The leader controls the flow of information and instructs, while the employee obeys.

    • Use of threats

    For leaders to succeed with the use of coercive power, they need to use threats of punishment. 

    • Certain, sizeable punishment

    There have to be certain negative consequences for noncompliance. The significance of the punishment must also be large enough to encourage compliance.

    • Strict systems of surveillance

    Employees won’t do what they ought to do if there’s no one watching them. There’s no fear of being caught.

    If the power you wield is absolute and intimidating, those are good indicators that you’re using coercive power.


    Examples of coercive power in use

    From threatening to fire an employee to taking them off important projects, here are some examples of coercive power.

    • Terminating an employee for non-compliance — just like a school may expel a student for bad behavior
    • Demoting a non-compliant employee
    • Written warnings to mar stellar records
    • Putting employees on projects they don’t want as punishment
    • Requiring overtime or extra work to complete a project
    • Publicly berating an erring employee
    • Removing erring employees from important projects they want to be part of
    • Threatening to withhold bonuses

    How coercive power impacts employees

    Workplace coercion may start out effective, but it often leads to low self-esteem and mental health issues for employees.

    Findings show that among the bases of social power, coercive power triggers stress from a perceived lack of control. That’s because coercive power creates a feeling of powerlessness amongst employees. There is a high dependency on supervisors, anxiety to satisfy the manager’s needs, and a constant focus on duties and evaluation. 

    All these feelings can introduce anxiety and depression. Moreover, a lack of control is one of the six factors likely to contribute to workplace burnout.

    When to use coercive power

    Despite the negative effects on employees, coercive power is not without its merits — when used right.

    Consider how the threat of termination discourages harassment at work. Or, how traffic cameras use coercive power to encourage safe driving. Or even how school teachers encourage students to study with the threat of failure.

    If there are harmful practices that employees might engage in, coercive power should be used to check that.

    Here are some instances when it can be effective to employ coercive power at work:

    • When employees harass or gaslight colleagues, affecting team morale
    • When employees distribute sensitive company information that puts profits or liabilities at risk
    • When employees neglect their duties, impacting both team morale and business profits
    • When obeying rules directly corresponds with employee safety (e.g. in manufacturing and construction)

    To deter employees from misconduct, document policies that contain implications for unacceptable behavior.


    Advantages of coercive power

    Coercive power can increase productivity, workplace safety, and more. Here are five advantages of using coercive power at work:

    1. Increased productivity

    When there’s clear and certain punishment for slacking off, employees will put in work to avoid failing at their tasks. They'll do more and achieve more at work. 

    2. Increased efficiency 

    With coercive leadership, managers expect employees to not just perform, but to perform on time too. This increased emphasis on carrying out duties on time will cause employees to examine their processes for opportunities to improve. They'll become more efficient at handling tasks with speed and accuracy. 

    3. Fewer instances of insubordination 

    Aside from slacking off, there will be times when employees intentionally disobey rules when there’s nothing to check them. The use of coercive power reminds employees of the negative consequences of insubordination. And in cases of non-compliance, allows you to discipline such employees.

    4. Enhanced workplace safety

    Where obeying rules directly corresponds with employee safety, coercive power helps keep your workers safe. In a manufacturing plant, for example, workers need to adhere to strict rules of conduct for safety. Coercive power makes it more likely that they’ll do so for fear of punishment. Otherwise, people could go about with a lax attitude believing that the safety procedures are exaggerated.

    Another good example is in establishing safety for employees with disabilities and protecting underrepresented people from harassment. 

    5. Fewer negative surprises

    One characteristic of coercive power is dictatorial control over creative ideas and processes. With fewer chances to explore comes fewer chances to fail. Employees will follow the set standards and processes for work, and you can anticipate the results for every project.

    Disadvantages of coercive power

    For each advantage coercive power brings to the workplace, there’s a disadvantage or two. Here’s how coercive power can harm your workplace.

    1. Increases antagonism between managers and team members

    Studies show that workplace coercion increases antagonism between leadership and the people they lead. 

    A coercive leader is like a dictator that employees have to fear, listen to, and obey. There’s hardly any two-way communication and employees are not involved in any decision-making. Because of this, people begin to revolt, even if only in their hearts at first. The leader becomes the bad guy.

    2. Diminishes employee trust

    Because there’s little to no communication, coercive power hampers implicit trust between employees and their leaders. Employees don’t believe that leaders are looking out for them. Trust becomes something leaders need to prove with reason — to earn.

    Leaders will now have to rely on fear to accomplish tasks. Unfortunately, fear can create toxicity at work in the long run.

    3. Stifles innovation

    Authoritarian leadership typically hinders employees from expressing their ideas for fear of backlash. People in positions of power may forbid others from offering suggestions or voicing their views at all. As a result, there are fewer creative ideas to work with. 

    Because innovation is necessary for success in today's competitive markets, coercive power can lead to business failure.

    4. Lowers job satisfaction

    Coercive power makes employees feel powerless. That’s a recipe for disaster in today’s job market where people seek mental well-being and autonomy at work more than anything.

    For people to be happy at their jobs, they desire the freedom to express creative ideas and choose their own processes. People want to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves — rather than simply working for a paycheck.

    Employee job satisfaction is important because it affects productivity, efficiency, and retention rates.

    5. Lowers retention rates

    People don't leave jobs; they leave bosses. It’s harder to keep employees happy with coercive leadership. Employees have to sacrifice their sense of autonomy — and oftentimes their sense of purpose too. 

    When a lack of purpose at work is accompanied by a constant fear of impending doom, employees leave. 

    6. Reduces manager productivity

    Coercive power only works when there’s constant employee surveillance.

    Because you need to constantly monitor employees to ensure compliance, you spend less time doing productive work.

    7. Only effective for a limited time

    If you coerce people often, the effects of fear begin to wear off. People will eventually challenge your authority and do want they want. Therefore, this leadership style isn’t sustainable for long-term influence.

    Influencing beyond coercive power

    There’s a difference between power and influence. While power comes from authority, influence comes from persuasion.

    It may be useful to wield the power to ‘fix’ employees when they engage in misconduct, coercive power will not work forever. We should rely less on coercive power and more on influence.

    In fact, there are a few specific instances where we should use coercive power. To discourage workplace harassment, protect company data, and keep employees safe.

    It’s also important to note that coercive power does not work if you’re unable to monitor for misconduct and carry out the threat. 

    With the constant work, impact on trust, and drawbacks attached to coercion, it’s smart to consider other ways to influence without coercive power.

    Looking to develop your influence at work and improve communication among your team? Coaching is shown to improve communication, conflict resolution, and effective leadership. Reach out to BetterUp and schedule a demo today.

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    Published August 30, 2022

    Allaya Cooks-Campbell

    BetterUp Staff Writer

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