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Navigating Coercive Power: The Ultimate Guide to Empowerment

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Have you ever wondered why people follow orders, even when it goes against their moral compass? 

Many of us are afraid of disobeying authorities. 

Many people in power use this to their advantage through coercive power, where they set up threats to influence others to do things.

In this article, we’ll review coercive power in the workplace and personal relationships to help you understand how to deal with it. 

What is Coercive Power?

Coercive power is a phenomenon where one person or a group utilizes their power and authority to manipulate or control others. This has significant implications in the workplace, as it can result in psychological distress for both the manipulator and the victim.

When researchers1 studied how coercive power impacts team cooperation, they found that it gives rise to a more antagonistic climate and has teammates feel forced to comply with rules.

Understanding Coercive Power

Coercive power involves controlling or manipulating others through intimidation, threats, or manipulation. Its purpose is to compel individuals to do things they may not want. For instance, someone employing coercive power might say, “If you refuse to comply, I will harm you.”

According to the American Psychological Association2,other%20negative%20forms%20of%20power., coercive power operates through the capacity to enforce compliance via force, punishment, or the threat of punishment. Individuals who exert coercive power utilize tactics such as threats, guilt, rewards, or discipline to coerce others into actions they would not willingly undertake.

The Milgram shock experiment3, conducted in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, aimed to investigate the impact of authority on individuals’ willingness to inflict pain on others. Milgram devised an experiment where volunteers, tricked into believing they were “teachers,” were instructed by an authority figure to administer increasing electric shocks to a “learner” for every wrong answer. 

Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the “learner” was an undercover assistant, and no real shocks were given. Yet 65% of participants went on to administer shocks severe enough to suggest fatality, highlighting the powerful influence of coercive authority on human behavior.

Here’s a fascinating video of the experiment.

Coercive Power in The Workplace

Coercive power is when a boss uses threats to motivate employee behavior.

There are some positive uses of coercive power, such as:

  • Ensuring safety compliance with punishments
  • Threatening termination for unethical or fraudulent behavior
  • Penalizing employees for harassing other employees

However, if a leader leans too much on coercive power to achieve results, it can create a high-pressure and toxic workplace culture, which can harm a team in the long term.

According to Luciano Santini4, Ph., using coercive power in the workplace can result in employees feeling: 

  • Low job satisfaction
  • Lack of creativity and innovation
  • Lack of personal control

Here are some examples of workplace power that might create a culture that feels toxic to employees

A pie chart diagram showing examples of workplace power, including coercive power, that might create a culture that feels toxic to employees.

Source: Abuser Goes to Work

The coercive power of a manager according to the workplace power and control wheel and some examples include:

  • Use of economic abuse
    • Unwarranted loss of privileges
    • Longer hours for little pay
    • Pay cuts out of punishment
  • Use of coercion threats
    • Mandated cooperation
    • Harassment
    • Firing of employees that retaliate disguised as layoffs
  • Use of intimidation
    • High employee turnover
    • Discrimination
  • Use of emotional abuse
    • Managers ask out an employee on a date repeatedly.
  • Use of isolation
    • Exclusion from important meetings and social gatherings 
    • Ignoring emails, phone calls, and in-person contact with the employee
  • Use of supervisory privilege
    • Unncessicary demotion of an employee 
    • Manager falsely accusing the employee of misconduct
  • Use of others to uphold abusive behavior
    • Spread rumors among the employees’ co-workers to cause conflict 
  • Deny, blame, and minimize abusive behavior
    • The mentioning of abuse causes the manager to mock or make light of the employee’s feelings
    • Accusing the employee of insubordination

Quality leadership skills are essential to combat coercive power; check out How to Be a Good Leader for a step-by-step guide!

Types of Coercive Power

There are two types of coercive power: direct and indirect power.

Direct power: straight from the boss’s mouth

Picture this: you’re sitting in your stuffy office, staring at a never-ending pile of paperwork, when in walks your boss. You quickly calculate how many vacation days you have left, but they drop the bombshell before you can escape to a tropical paradise. “Finish that report by tomorrow, or you can kiss your promotion goodbye!” Ouch, talk about a punch to the gut!

This is direct coercive power. It’s all about those in-your-face threats and ultimatums that leave you feeling trapped and helpless. Your boss can make your life a nightmare if you comply. It’s like being caught in a whirlwind of fear and pressure.

Indirect power: subtle manipulation

Now, let’s switch gears and dive into the mysterious world of indirect coercive power. Imagine you’re in a toxic relationship with someone with a knack for playing mind games. They’ll never say, “Do this or else!” No, they’re far sneakier than that.

Instead, they’ll use subtle tactics to control and manipulate you. They might employ emotional blackmail, guilt-tripping, or even withholding love and affection. It’s like being stuck in a maze where every turn is a mind game, and you can never find your way out.

With indirect power, it’s all about psychological warfare. Remember one of those James Bond movies where the villain had a secret lair filled with traps and surprises? That’s what it feels like dealing with someone wielding indirect coercive power.

When dealing with indirect coercive power, it can be helpful to understand the underlying laws of influence at play. If you’d like to dive deeper into the topic, you might enjoy this free guide:

Become More Influential

Want to become an influential master? Learn these 5 laws to level up your skills.

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Coercion vs. Coercive Power

Coercion refers to forcefully compelling someone to do something against their will. On the other hand, coercive power is a type of power where you influence others’ behavior by setting up disincentives or punishments.

Coercive power is a form of power that can be both good and bad when wielded unfairly and harmfully. For instance, you might use coercion when persuading a friend not to spend all their money on expensive clothes by threatening them with violence. However, in this scenario, the absence of an actual threat means it does not exemplify coercive power. Conversely, if your boss threatens termination if employees fail to meet their goals, that would constitute an example of coercive power, as there is clear intent behind using such tactics against individuals who may require additional motivation.

Recognizing and addressing coercive power is essential for fostering a healthy and empowering environment for all individuals involved.

Are you a manager reading this to make sure you aren’t being coercive? How can you better manage your employees? We’ve covered you with 5 Coaching Techniques to Turn Your Employees Into All Stars!

Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

Emotional abuse can be a difficult concept for people to understand. It’s not always as evident as physical violence or verbal threats, so it’s easy to dismiss when you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship. But even if your partner isn’t doing anything outwardly harmful, that doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting you—and if they are hurting you in this way, then there are ways out! Here are some signs that your partner is emotionally abusing you:

  • You feel like they control every aspect of your life (including clothes/hobbies/friends/etc.).
  • Your partner makes all of the decisions without asking for input from anyone else in the relationship.
  • You often feel like nobody understands how much pain their words have caused because no one else has experienced them before–and maybe nobody ever will again, either!

How to Respond to a Victim of Coercive Power

If someone you know is being abused by coercive power, it’s essential to recognize the signs of abuse. Consider seeking professional support if you see these signs in yourself or someone else.

  • The victim becomes isolated from family and friends.
  • They have difficulty making decisions without first consulting their abuser (for example: asking permission before buying clothes).
  • The victim feels like they’re not good enough or intelligent enough compared with their partner/family member/friend who is abusing them through coercive power tactics (for example: “I’m so lucky that my boss likes me more than anyone else at work because then he’ll give me better projects than everyone else”). 
  • If possible, avoid spending time alone with an abuser until they’ve received treatment for their addiction(s). Make sure any non-essential interactions between yourself and the person who wants power over others remain in public places where other people are always present—especially if there’s any chance that alcohol may be involved! This helps protect both parties from dangerous situations where coercion could occur without anyone noticing until too late.

Recognize How Coercive Power Exists to Protect Yourself and Others.

Recognizing coercive power and how it operates is essential to protecting yourself and others. Emotional abuse is the most common form of coercive power, but other signs should not be ignored:

  • People exercising coercive power often use guilt trips or threats to get what they want. They may say, “If you don’t do X, then I won’t love you anymore.”
  • Victims of emotional abuse may feel trapped by their circumstances and unable to leave because they fear losing someone’s affection or approval (or both).

Coercive power is also used in more severe forms of abuse, such as physical and sexual violence. This coercion may be evident to outside observers, but victims may not realize they are being manipulated until it’s too late. If you or someone you know is being subjected to coercive power, getting help immediately is crucial.

How to Recognize the Signs of Coercive Power and Step Away

You can recognize the signs of coercive power and step away from it.

  • Recognize that you cannot control someone else’s behavior, emotions, or actions.
  • Understand that you are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings or actions.
  • When someone uses coercive power over you, they will try to make it seem like their way is all that matters in your life. They’ll try to convince you that if they don’t get what they want out of a situation, there will be dire consequences for everyone involved–and probably even worse things happening down the road if something doesn’t change right away! This kind of thinking makes us feel like we don’t have any choice but to give them what they want right now so everything can go back to normal (i.e., everyone getting along).

We hope this article has helped you understand coercive power and how it operates. It’s essential to recognize that coercive power exists and how it works to protect yourself and others, especially in workplace settings. Are you looking for leadership guidance? Check out these 10 effective tips on how to lead a strengths-based team!

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