Coercive Power: How To Recognise and Overcome It

CoachHub · 21 November 2022 · 10 min read

The high-handed approach in some work settings is all too familiar; you might recall scenarios where an employee is forced to work extra hours for fear of being perceived as inept or being replaced.

At times, a manager may decide to use certain metrics in determining an employee’s performance outside of the professional purview, and the employee often has no choice but to comply out of fear.

Various studies have proven that the use of coercive power on employees may seem outwardly productive, but can be retrogressive in the long term. Even the organisation might be on the verge of losing valuable employees due to toxic work cultures.

When an organisation applies this form of power to influence workers’ behaviour; it capitalises on their fear to derive the results the organisation wants to achieve. However, there’s a lot that isn’t right with this approach.

Coercive Power Definition

What is coercive power? This form of power is considered ‘harsh’ and regarded as an individual’s ability to detect and sanction an unlawful act. It uses external agents to induce change in another person. A parent, leader, or employer could often employ actions such as threats, force, bullying, blackmail, or torture to get someone to do what needs to be done. A typical example is when an employee faces the threat of losing their promotion when they refuse to meet a specific target.

Coercive power is just one form of power out of many; however, it can only be applied to one person by another.

coercive leadership

Types of Coercive Power

This type of power can be applied in forms, directly or indirectly.

In the case of direct use of coercive power, the tools used to stimulate response such as threats, force, and bullying are actively applied for compliance. While in indirect instances, a person could find themselves responding to it when it is implied or imagined. For instance, a person will do something for someone else without being asked, for fear of being bullied or forced to do it eventually.

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How To Identify Coercive Power

This form of power capitalises on the human emotion of fear to get things done. Sometimes this could be good, as the consciousness of what’s at stake could provide the energy required to get the task done.

However, applying this to drive results consistently will be likely counter-productive when it becomes the primary route to getting things done. Various power dynamics exist in various relationships and sometimes it could be difficult to know when this power type is applied. In cases where it’s subtly presented it could be mistaken for firmness. So how do you identify coercive power when you experience it?

Excessive control:

A common factor in wielding coercive power is control. The person who uses it is likely to be the one to determine the outcomes without receiving the other person’s opinion about it.

Threats and force to enforce compliance:

It could involve a situation where someone uses threats or force to make you comply with their demands.

Intimidating and excessive monitoring:

It could involve the use of intimidating tactics and monitoring to get a person to act.

Significant punishment:

The punishment associated with noncompliance is often a significant one and one that’s scary enough to discourage noncompliance.

There’s no room for disobedience:

This form of power does not give room for disobedience or delay in carrying out instructions.

Examples of Coercive Power in work settings:

Demotion or promotion delay:

An employee may decide to refuse an employee a promotion even if they’re due for it. In even tougher situations, the employee may be demoted from occupying certain positions and replaced with another employee who is more compliant with the power dynamics.

Employee job termination:

An organisation may also choose to stop an employee’s job as punishment for not complying with instructions. The idea is often to instill a sense of fear in other employees while punishing the current employee.

Threats to ruin an employee’s track record:

Employees who have spent years building their careers and honing their craft can be at the mercy of the organisations their work with. In a direct case of coercive power play, such employees may be threatened with a dent in their career track record should they fail to comply with certain standards.

Withholding bonuses and entitlements:

An organisation may make demands on an employee at the expense of their bonuses and entitlements. Often, they would have to comply if they do not want those bonuses or entitlements withheld or delayed.

Public embarrassment of an employee:

In some scenarios, some managers may openly reprimand an employee, or speak derogatively to them in a bid to enforce compliance or as punishment for noncompliance.

Demand more work or extra time from employees:

In demanding extra time from employees, or asking them to take on more tasks than is commensurate to their pay, they exploit the fact that the employees are at their mercy and often have no other choice but to comply.

Breaking down formidable teams:

An organisation may seek to remove certain people from a team or from working on a specific project they’ve spent a lot of resources and energy on, just as a punishment for noncompliance in certain areas.

Putting employees on demanding projects:

While the work needs to be done by someone, some employees are more competent in certain areas than in others. Sometimes, a manager could decide to place an employee on a project that they’re not so competent in, to spite them or get them to face more difficulty on the job.

coercive leadership

How does Coercive Power play in organisational settings impact employee work-life

It’s not unusual to observe coercive leadership style at play in work settings, and while it may provide some results, consistent use of coercive power can impact employees negatively.

Take a look at some areas it could impact employees negatively;

  • One of the significant effects of coercive power is workplace burnout, which could then induce other psychological issues in employees.
  • Stress and anxiety are other common impacts of coercive power, as employees feel constantly out of control, and are constantly plagued by the fear of losing their jobs or getting punished for noncompliance.
  • The feeling of lack of control can also stifle employee creativity and ingenuity required to get outstanding results on the job, and even lower overall performance and productivity the more.
  • Where coercive power is constantly at play, employees are likely to develop low self-esteem and become reluctant at contributing their opinions and insights even when asked.
  • It could induce an inability to focus on the job, and get an employee constantly looking over their shoulders and overly conscious of their actions on the job.
  • Depression and overall diminish in quality of life. Since most employees spend a significant part of their day at work, they’re likely to carry their insecurities off work setting, feel frustrated, or even fall into depression due to the condition they work in. Now, this can lead to diminishing quality of life for an employee.

Instances when Coercive Power can be positively applied in a work setting

There are a lot of instances of coercive power and how it can negatively impact people when it is constantly wielded. However, they’re instances when it can be rightly applied to get the right response in a work setting.

It’s not unusual to find employees who are likely to flout the rules and act against clearly stated organisational policies. In such instances, applying coercive power might be unavoidable and often the right thing to do. When this kind of employee realises what’s at stake, they’re likely to do what’s right. So, here are some instances to apply a coercive leadership style.

  • In instances of ineptitude and outright neglect of duties by an employee, it’s okay to apply coercive power.
  • If the employee tends to act in ways that jeopardise their safety or that of others, then it’s important to apply coercion.
  • Employees who tend to ruin the team spirit, and forestall the successful delivery of projects can be checked using coercive power
  • When an employee is likely to compromise the organisational code of conduct by sharing sensitive information with third parties unwarranted.

What are the advantages of using Coercive Power?

In various work settings, the using coercive leadership/leadership styles may prove to be advantageous in various ways. These include:

Enforcing safety standards:

As earlier noted, some employees are likely to flout rules to the detriment of their safety and that of others. In this regard, applying coercive power instills awareness of the risk of punishment in such employees. Either way, employers can be certain that every employee will stick to laid down rules regarding safety and comply with them.

Improved efficiency and productivity:

In some organisations, some employees are likely to be lax about their work and not meet up with assigned tasks in due time. However, the coercive use of power helps to keep all of that in check. Employees get to be uptight at their responsibilities because they are aware of the punishments and sanctions that come with doing otherwise.

Absolute compliance with laid down principles:

With coercive power at play, there’s hardly room to explore outside of laid down principles. In such instances, employers are sure of the expected outcome of their employee’s work, as they’re certain that they’ll follow all laid down principles in getting their work done.

No room for insubordination:

Where sanctions are in place for flouting rules, employees are less likely to go that route. In settings where surveillance is employed, employees will naturally comply and do what’s expected of them, which is sometimes not the case when surveillance is absent.

What are the disadvantages of using Coercive Power?

The disadvantages of using coercive power far outweigh the advantages of using it, especially when it’s used excessively in a work setting. More often than not, the intended goal of applying it is often defeated once employees get used to it.

Why is coercive power harmful to apply?

Stifled creativity and innovative ideas:

When organisational processes become rigid, employees tend to follow a bureaucratic style of operation. They no longer contribute creative ideas and innovative solutions that could advance the company’s growth. When this happens, the organisation may likely begin to experience problems stemming from this, and sometimes without being aware that this is the cause.

Distrust between management and employees:

When employees feel that their opinions don’t count or are rarely utilised, they begin to hold back. This then breeds distrust between the managers and employees, as they now feel the leaders are pursuing selfish interests at the expense of the employees. Invariably, coercion will replace motivation and the margin of distrust will keep widening.

Job dissatisfaction and resignations:

Many employees tie their life’s worth around their jobs, and it may feel like they’re no longer in charge or like someone else is now in control. If this happens, it’s likely to start affecting their sense of purpose and self-worth. A highly skilled employee will likely remedy this by choosing to resign from the job, once the feelings of dissatisfaction set in.

Stifled working relationship between employees and managers:

When an authority figure at work begins to coerce subordinates into obedience, the working relationship is likely to start crumbling. If at all, it would begin to breed an air of contempt around the work setting. If the opportunity presents itself, such employees could antagonise the leader or frustrate their efforts to produce results and meet specified objectives to spite them.

Effective in the short-term:

With time, employees are likely to lose motivation on the job and get used to serving the sanctions attached to noncompliance. As a matter of fact, some employees are likely to intentionally flout the rules out of frustration, so they could get the ultimate sanction of being fired from the job. If this is the case, if a manager has to fire an employee every now and then, the organisation is likely to head downhill.

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Influence and the use of Coercive Power; how to get it right

So far, we’ve observed that the use of coercive power can only provide results in the short term. How then can organizations get their employees to do what’s right, without using coercive power?

The management must understand that they are different ways to wield power from a standpoint of authority. Additionally, authority can be wielded to gain influence and impact with employees that will yield long-lasting benefits for all.

Influence is a language of effective and exemplary leadership and it is earned not demanded. If the organization will invest in coaching its leaders in effective leadership strategies and people management skills, there’s likely any need to apply coercion in most instances.

At CoachHub we’re committed to providing an excellent coaching framework for organizational leaders and employees, that helps you to achieve your organizational goals faster and without the use of coercion.

Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specializes in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him traveling or listening to good music.

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