Coercive Power:  Is the Benefit Worth the Cost?

Ever known someone pulled over for speeding?  Chances are they knew what the speed limit was, but thought they wouldn’t be caught.  The benefit of having traffic laws is to promote safety on the highways.  But there is a cost to enforcing the laws, just as there is always a cost when using any force.  Read on to learn about the costs of Coercive Power, and nine ways to keep it from backfiring on you.

Coercive Power

 What is Coercive Power?

Coercive power is the opposite of Reward Power. It is the idea that you can compel people to behave in a certain way through force or threat of force.  Coercion might mean physical force, but it can also include withholding resources, reprimand, demotion, firing, denial of privileges, pay cuts, layoffs, terminations,  and undesirable assignments. There is even a social dimension – the Amish use social exclusion – shunning – as a way to force compliance.

Coercive power is typically positional.  Like Legitimate Power and Reward Power the position of the leader brings with it authorities and responsibilities that can include tools to force people to do things.

To be effective, a good leader will need to have some Coercion Power in his bag of tricks.  But it should not be the go-to option to get the team to a level of high performance.

The Downside to Coercive Power

Coercion Can lead to Dissatisfaction and Backlash.  There are great scenes in The Bridge on the River Kwai that show how this can occur.  The Japanese commander attempts to force the British prisoners to build a bridge, but the prisoners find lots of ingenious ways to sabotage progress.  Without true British cooperation, the bridge would never have been completed on time.  The same thing applies to your team and in the work place.  People don’t like to be forced to do things and may look for ways to retaliate.

Coercion Takes Effort.  Once a threat is made, the leader must be constantly aware of whether or not it has produced compliance.  This requires constant vigilance.  How many police patrol the highways with radar guns to make sure the speed limit is obeyed?  And if you have to enforce the threat, there’s more for you to do.  Possibly even involving paperwork.  Is that where you want to spend your time?

Coercion Gets Compliance, not Commitment.  During the inquisition, I am sure many victims chose to repent of supposed heresies rather than be burned alive.  But it would be hard to believe they truly were committed to the new beliefs they were forced to espouse.  Using coercion, you might get the behavior you want, but their hearts may not be in it.

As a #leadership tool, coercion gets compliance, not commitment. Click To Tweet

Coercion Stifles Innovation and Productivity Studies have shown that in an environment of fear, people are less willing to take risks, which means creativity will suffer.  And if you are under the gun to produce a certain quota every week, chances are you will only produce that much.  Anything more you’ll save for next week so you don’t risk the consequences of falling behind.  Under coercion, the incentive is to avoid penalty, not to maximize productivity, so productivity suffers.

Coercion stifles innovation and creativity. Click To Tweet

Coercion has a Cost.  After World War II, America spent vast amounts of money building up its defenses to deter the Soviet Union – it needed a credible threat against the communist regime.  President Eisenhower lamented this cost when he said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed…”  In the same way, the effort you expend on building and maintaining the ability to coerce is energy you could be spending productively elsewhere.

It’s Subject to Abuse.  A leader who is weak in his other power bases may rely too heavily on coercion, which can lead to abuse.  The track record of authoritarian leaders and dictators is not good.

How to use it to Best Effect

Nonetheless, there is a time and place for using coercive power.  Here are nine how’s and when’s for using this tool: 

  1. Use it to Enforce Basic Standards. This benefits everyone. Where safety, public law, fair practices, security, and good order and discipline are concerned, having punishments in place is beneficial for everyone.  Soldiers are threatened with discipline if they fall asleep on guard duty for good reason; same thing with penalties for people disclosing personal information, falsifying documents, or breaking the law.   Your organization should have clear standards of behavior, and there ought to be clear consequences for violating them. 
  1. Use it Sparingly. You don’t want to run a police state or a prison camp; that’s not where you want to be spending your energy.  You’re looking for energized teammates all striving to accomplish the mission.  The more you pull out the whip, the more they will feel like inmates and resent it.  Don’t use it if you can devise other ways to get the behavior you want.
  1. Use it When you Think the Threat Alone will be Enough. The best use of threat is when you don’t have to actually follow through with it.  You just want the behavior to change, and you’d rather not go through the pain of writing a letter of reprimand or justifying a demotion.  If you think they will comply before you have to pull the pin, that’s the best case scenario for you.  However…
  1. Threaten Use Only if You Mean it. Never Make an Empty Threat.  Absolutely do not make a threat you can’t follow through with or are unwilling to enforce.  Failing to do so hurts you in the short run because you haven’t fixed the behavior.  But it hurts you in the long run, too.  You’ve just demonstrated to everyone that your threats are meaningless; now all future threats you make will be weaker and less effective.  Ever see a kid knowingly misbehave while looking straight at his threatening parent?  The kid probably knows the score; nothing’s going to happen.
  1. Make Them Believe it will Happen. When Hernán Cortés embarked upon his invasion of Mexico, he exhorted his men with fiery speeches about committing to the conquest.  He ended with three words, “Burn the boats.”  With this single act, his men knew Cortés was serious and there was no going back.  Your team needs to be equally sure you will “burn the boats” if needed and execute your threat if forced to.  You can check out this very helpful blog post over at Harvard Business Review for Six Steps for Making your Threat Credible.
  1. Use it Consistently. Threatening and punishing one person but not another for the same behavior will quickly produce a sense of injustice and preferential treatment on your team.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and that includes you.  Bring punishment fairly and consistently, and make sure you are setting a good personal example here.
  1. Use in Times of Crisis. If a child is about to run out into a busy intersection, that would be a good time to physically restrain him.  Companies going through major change may need to exercise some force to get employee behavior to change.  In 1981 President Reagan faced a national strike by the Air Traffic Controller’s union.  It was illegal for the controllers to strike because of their critical function to the nation.  He ordered them back to work.  When they did not comply, he fired all 11,359 of them, and brought in others to do the job to keep the airplanes flying.
  1. Make the Consequence fit the Crime. Be rational about what you are threatening to do.  No need to jump straight to the “nuclear option” and fire your top performer just because he showed up five minutes late once.  Everybody is human.  It’s better to have levels of punishment that steadily turn up the pressure instead of an all-or-nothing approach.
  1. Balance it with Other Motivators. In a positive environment, the focus is on taking action to accomplish the goals of the group.  That’s where you want people’s heads.  Not focused on avoiding punishment.  Make sure you have plenty of positive reinforcement options that keep your team motivated.  You don’t need a reward program for just showing up on time.  But if you are leading them well and they feel a sense of commitment to the team, you probably won’t have much of a tardiness problem to begin with.  Here’s more about the idea of positive reinforcement.

Takeaway

Coercive power can be effective, but the wise leader uses this power sparingly.  When it’s in the best interest of the group that people act in certain ways, having clear policies and enforcement in place is a good idea.

But using coercion to try and drive innovation, raise productivity and build a high performing team is not going to work out well – their hearts won’t be in it.  It’s best to explore your other sources of power to accomplish that.

 

Question:  Can you think of an instance where an attempt to use coercive power backfired on the leader?  What else could the leader have done to get the behavior he wanted?
Add your thoughts in the comment box below.  And if you liked this post, be sure to sign up now for twice-monthly Leadership Updates with more tips and exclusive content not available elsewhere on the site!

Credits:

French, J. and Raven, B. (1959). The Bases of Social Power. In Studies in Social Power, D. Cartwright, Ed., pp. 150-167. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.

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2 thoughts on “Coercive Power:  Is the Benefit Worth the Cost?”

  1. Use coercion sparingly. Make absolutely sure that the crime is deserving of the punishment. Use a lot of caution and judgement when using coercion, and if possible, get other leader’s opinion of it. In the end the decision is yours, but I would want to make absolutely sure before I implement it.

    1. Agreed! There is a time and a place, but like they say in the old westerns, never draw unless you are willing to shoot.

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