Power in the workplace can exist in many different forms. It can exist even without a formal organizational hierarchy in place, and it can exist outside of any formal hierarchy that is in place. One particular type of power is called Coercive Power.
Coercive Power is one of The 5 Types of Power identified by psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven in 1959.
Coercive power is defined as the use of force to get an employee to follow an instruction or order, where power comes from one’s ability to punish the employee for noncompliance. This power is in use, for example, when an employee carries out an order under fear of losing their job or their annual bonus. In effect, they are forced to perform the task.
As you can see from the above definition, coercive power is a formal type of power, and not a personal power. Where does referent power come from? Unlike personal power, coercive power comes from one’s formal authority and ability to punish others. Examples of coercive power include loss of privileges, demotion, loss of bonus, and suspension.
Note that there are two types of coercion – direct and indirect. Direct coercion is a deliberate threat by a leader to elicit a specific behaviour. Indirect coercion is where the threat is perceived by the employee, regardless of whether it is real or not. An example of indirect coercion is where an employee starts to work longer hours in the run up to annual bonus compensation being determined. In this case the employee perceives a threat of not receiving their hoped for bonus.
Each of the 5 types of power have their own pros and cons and can be useful under different circumstances. Although coercive power might seem like something from the industrial revolution, there are situations where it is very useful.
The key advantage of coercive power is in its ability to force compliance from employees. As such, it is useful in certain situations, as highlighted below:
You should only really use coercive power when you have no other choice and you want to put an immediate stop on negative behaviour. Some of the pitfalls of coercive power include:
Coercive power comes from one’s ability to punish a subordinate if they don’t perform as instructed. Whilst it can be very useful in certain situations, it should always be used very sparingly and only be used when there is no other option, as there are a number of drawbacks associated with it.
Image credit: Javier Leiva
Situational Leadership Model
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership
Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum
Legitimate Power in the Workplace
Level 5 Leadership
Five Functions of Management
14 Principles of Management