Coercive Power: How it Impacts Your Employees

Coercive Power

Coercive power is a concept created by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, who defined the different types of social power used and how coercive power is used and abused in everyday life. Have you ever been threatened with a punishment if you did not complete a task? Maybe your parents told you that you would be grounded if you did not complete your homework or your boss threatened to fire you if you did not complete your job. If this is the case, you have come face to face with coercive power. Coercive power leadership leads to a drop in emploee job satisfaction.

Coercive leadership is the use of threats of force or punishment to achieve the desired behavior from another. This article will define and identify coercive power as compared to other forms of power. It will then outline the advantages and disadvantages of wielding coercive power the effects that the use of coercive power may have on employees and how the organization operates. The goal of this article is to highlight how and why coercive power is used and how it can restrict growth.

Types of Power

According to French and Raven, social power is how power works between two or more people. There are several ways that power can be wielded between people, and this power will change based on the relationship between the parties, the leadership structures within the relationship, and the temperament or leadership style of the person who is in charge. The six bases of social power that French and Raven identified are included here.

Coercive Power

As stated above, coercive power is the threat of force or punishment to enforce compliance with the wishes of an authority figure. For coercive power to be in place, there must be a hierarchy within the relationship, and the person in power must have control over one or more aspects of the person’s life.

Examples of coercive power outside of the workforce include the threat of an embargo if a nation does not comply with what the other nation wants or a mother threatening to remove a child’s favorite toy from the home to enforce compliance with her strict rules.

The use of coercive power can be experienced either directly or indirectly.

Direct Coercive Power

Direct coercive power is the use of force, bullying, or punishment openly. This means that coercive power leads to threats that are communicated clearly to the person receiving them. In the examples above, the coercive power is direct because both threats of punishment are verbally spoken to ensure compliance.

Indirect Coercive Power

Indirect coercive power is power that is felt and not communicated. The overwhelming threat of harm may induce change in a person, even without using coercive power out loud. Suppose in the example above, that the mother often took away the child’s favorite toy when they did not obey the rules. Eventually, the child will likely learn that if they meet expectations within the house, they can avoid the punishment. This is an example of indirect coercive power.

Reward Power

The opposite of coercive power is reward power. This power offers a reward in exchange for productivity or the ability to follow instructions. This type of power still requires one person to be in charge and to have some control over the reward options in a person’s life, but reward power often helps people feel satisfied rather than coerced.

Legitimate Power

Legitimate power is the power granted by an election or another form of recognized granting of authority. For example, the president of the United States has legitimate power because they are given that power by the people. In the same way, the Prime Minister of Canada has legitimate power.

Referent Power

Referent power is the power earned by a leader based on a social group trusting their ideas and how the organization operates. It does not come from threats or rewards or outside sources, but the trust of the group as a whole. An example of this power would be the power of a social change organization based on the collective interest in the moral and social ideals of the organization.

Expert Power

Expert power is the power that comes from having extensive knowledge and experience in a given field that the general public does not. For example, a lawyer will have expert power when giving legal advice or arguing in court. Judges will have the ultimate expert power in court.

Informational Power

Informational power is the power that accompanies access to information that is used to convince or influence other people. Social media companies are frequently used as examples of informational power because they hold vast amounts of information on different people and can encourage people to make purchases or changes.

Identifying Coercive Power

Aside from the use of force to get others to comply, several other characteristics can help a person identify coercive power, including:

Controls Everything

It is common for those exercising coercion to control every aspect of the decision-making and productivity of employees.

Little Room for Criticism

Those practicing coercion will often stop anyone from criticizing their ideas. Often, employees feel that they are only talked at and not allowed to respond.


Coercive power will use the threat of punishment that is very real to accomplish their tasks. When people do not believe the threats,  their coercive power is lost.

Coercive Power Advantages

While it may seem threatening and counterintuitive, coercive power does have certain benefits that can help influence employees to achieve the necessary results. Coercive power advantages should be used only in dire situations.

Occasionally, employees may rebel against the way the organization works in a way that disrupts productivity and harms the organization. When such employees can influence others to do the same, it can harm the organization as a whole. Using coercion to get an employee to comply can be helpful for the overall health of the business. Coercive power helps to enforce the status quo. However, it is important to note that coercive power will only prevent insubordination in the short-term, but will likely cause more issues in the long run.

Negative Consequences of Coercive Power

On the flip side, there are severe consequences to using coercive power over an employee. These can have an impact on an individual employee or the company as a whole.

Job Satisfaction

When a job is constantly threatened or the use of force is exercised, an employee will often feel less likely to be able to complete their tasks, and will often feel like they cannot do their job well. This will often result in employees experiencing lower job satisfaction and can cause a mass exodus. The inability to get and keep workers who can comply with the strict rules and procedures will often add additional pressure. This is why avoiding using coercive power to control employees may be the best option for overall well-being.

Fewer Creative Ideas

When job satisfaction and morale are low, or when control is excreted over the creative process, there will be fewer creative ideas, especially quality and innovative ideas. Stifling creative ingenuity will often lead to the eventual demise of the company.

Reduced Personal Power

By controlling many of the aspects of the work of an employee, a person exercising coercive power may end up reducing the personal power and individuality of each of the employees. This can stifle creativity and make a community of like-minded individuals to the point of inauthenticity. This is caused by the overwhelming coercion and fear of letting the other person down. Allowing people to exercise their power gives them the ability to grow and excel outside of fear.

Impacts on the Company’s Growth

By stifling creativity and productivity within strict compliance, you can also risk the company’s growth and trajectory. Without productive employees and a consistent flow of work, a company’s resources will quickly deplete and the organization will face the result of its coercive power. To avoid impacting growth, it is important to encourage ingenuity and true creative process while also expecting employees to complete their work within the necessary timelines.


Coercive power helps only in specific and limited circumstances. It should be avoided when trying to grow and influence an organization. Exercising other types of social power can be helpful, especially when power is earned through trust or expertise. Accepting and encouraging employees as they are will help a business grow and thrive for years to come.

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Emily Holland
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