The Basic Idea
What does it mean to be successful? Some people equate success with power, but what does being powerful mean? A dictionary would say ‘powerful’ is the ability to control people or things.1 However, does it matter how you exert your control?
Researchers that distinguish between different types of power say yes, it does matter how you exert your power. If you’ve ever worked under a supervisor who frightened and threatened you into being on your best behavior, you’ve experienced coercive power.2 Coercive power comes with the ability to surveille and punish subordinates for their noncompliance.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
In 1959, American social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven conducted a study on social power, which they defined as the potential for social influence.2 Social influence occurs when the actions of an influencing agent change the attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors of their target. French and Raven described five bases of power, and divided them into two categories. Formal power included the bases that depended on one’s position within an organization, while personal power included the bases defined by one’s followers.
Four of the five bases of power defined by French and Raven include:
- Reward power: The ability to issue rewards for compliance (a type of formal power).2
- Legitimate power: The formal right to give out directions and commands, due to their social positioning (a type of formal power).
- Expert power: When an influencing agent’s experience or knowledge allows targets of influence to trust them (a type of personal power).
- Referent power: Trust or respect afforded to an influencing agent, typically based on their general disposition and behaviors (a type of personal power).
The fifth base of power is coercive power.2 Coercive power is a formal power source, where influencing agents use the threat of force to gain compliance from targets of influence. The force can include social, emotional, physical, political, or economic means, and is not always recognized by the target. A supervisor could wield coercive power by threatening to take away an employee’s bonus or job. The fear caused by coercive power is what drives compliance.2 In order for coercive power to be successful, the influencing agent must be able to watch the target of influence.
In 1965, Raven added a sixth base of power, Informational power.3 This base of power occurs when an agent of influence brings about social change by sharing information and changing the cognitive models of the target. Informational power is a type of personal power, and its addition did not impact the conceptualization of coercive power.
An American psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, John French is most known for his work with Betram Raven on the five bases of social power.4
When the Research Center for Group Dynamics moved to UMich in 1947, French became a program director and soon became one of America’s top experts in social psychology research.
Bertram Raven was a social psychologist who taught at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was most known for his work with John French on the five bases of social power.5 Raven later extended their prior work, introducing a sixth base of power.3 Having served in the infantry at the end of World War II, Raven was interested in the determinants of health within the realm of social psychology, and was instrumental in developing the field of health psychology.5 After his work with French, Raven wrote extensively on small group dynamics, applying that knowledge to health contexts.
After coercion was defined by French and Raven to be a base of social power, it has been studied in the context of social dynamics and communication, including organizational management,6 persuasion tactics,7 and intimate relationships.8,9
Coercive power in the workplace can include threatening to demote, fire, or suspend an employee as a result of their performance.6 If a salesperson fails to meet their daily call quota, the manager of the sales department could threaten to demote them if they do not improve their performance within a week. According to some organizational managers, the goal of coercion is not to threaten or scare employees, but to ensure compliance. Holding coercive power allows managers to control how their organization operates and to instill discipline in their employees, improving efficiency and productivity.
When researching coercion as a purposeful persuasion tactic, researchers have found that soft power tactics (referent, expert, and informational power) tend to be received more favorably than hard power tactics (rewards and coercion).7 An individual’s personal motivational factors will affect both the power strategy chosen by the agent of influence, as well as the target’s readiness to comply.3
Compliance with soft power tactics is positively associated with employees’ intrinsic motivation, desire to get ahead, and level of self-esteem.7 Compliance with hard power tactics is positively associated with extrinsic motivation and a desire to get along with others, while negatively associated with intrinsic motivation and self-esteem.
In the realm of intimate relationships, the six bases of power are considered resources that contribute to one’s power.8 The powerful partner doesn’t necessarily have to possess the desired resources, as long as they control access to them. The principle of lesser interest holds that the person with less interest in continuing or maintaining the relationship has more power. Coercive and reward powers go hand in hand, as a partner’s ability to bestow rewards or punishments on another reflects the power they hold.
In terms of heterosexual relationships, men tend to hold more coercive power than their female partners due to greater physical strength and larger size.8 However, coercion is a corrosive way for people to get what they want in a relationship and it can foster resistance, such that partners who are coerced tend to be less compromising than if they had been approached with a gentler power.9
Certainly, there are disadvantages to using coercive power.10 In the workplace, coercion can decrease job satisfaction when employees feel they are constantly being surveilled. Coercion also only works when used sparingly and is not sustainable in the long-term. Finally, there is the threat of employee backlash, which can result in a high employee turnover, an outcome most companies hope to avoid.11 While you may threaten to fire an employee for their behavior, they may quit before that happens.
The cognitive impact of coercive power
Whereas French and Raven referred to power that comes from the threat of force or punishment as coercive power, they referred to power that comes from one’s formal right to issue directions and commands as legitimate power.2 The execution of both these bases of power by an authority figure can ensure cooperation in dilemmas surrounding public good and can prohibit free-riding in an organization, but do they stimulate the same cognitions?12
The slippery slope framework posits that while both coercive and legitimate power stimulate similar behavior, their underlying cognitions differ.12 According to the framework, the cognitions impacted by either base of power include trust in authorities (either implicit or reason-based trust), the relational base (whether it is an antagonistic or service climate), and motives for contribution (enforced compliance versus voluntary cooperation). Specifically, coercive power diminishes implicit trust, induces an antagonistic climate between authority figures and others, and leads to enforced compliance.
In 2017, a team of researchers set out to better understand the underlying cognitions for increased cooperation as a result of coercive and legitimate power.12 The researchers conducted four experiments to study cognitive differences induced by extremely high or low levels of both coercive and legitimate power. The experiments were set in the context of social dilemmas, concerning tax or insurance interactions.
All four experiments confirmed that coercive power applied exclusively decreases implicit trust, increases the perception of an antagonistic climate, and enforces compliance, in accordance with the slippery slope framework. However, when both coercive and legitimate power tactics were used, coercive power didn’t impact participants’ trust in the authority figures, but still led to the perception of an antagonistic climate and an enforced motive to comply.
The researchers suggested that the ability to maintain implicit trust could stem from legitimate power simulating rational consideration of an authority’s power due to their social position.12 While the combination of coercive power and legitimate power still resulted in perceptions of an antagonistic climate, they were perceived to a lesser degree than when coercive power was used alone. These findings suggest that it may be valuable for authority figures to combine coercive and legitimate power tactics, if they feel that coercive power is necessary.
Giving power to the powerless
French and Raven explored bases of social power,2 but what happens when you give power to someone who was previously powerless? Researchers suggest that when people are given the chance to exert power, they believe that all actions are possible, and can prioritize the use of force.13 In fact, Raven previously suggested that the successful use of coercive power might enhance one’s self-esteem. The literature suggests using coercive power might not only liberate those who have been powerless, but might also elevate their sense of worth.
But what exactly does it mean to be powerless? One psychological perspective characterizes the locus of control construct as a continuum of powerlessness. Those with an internal locus of control believe they control the outcomes of their experiences, while those with an external locus of control believe that their lives are governed by external forces like luck or fate.13 Those with an external locus of control view themselves to be powerless relative to those with an internal locus of control.
American researchers Barry Goodstadt and Larry Hjelle conducted an experiment on forty university students to investigate the relationship between locus of control and power.13 The students were asked to supervise three “workers” in a simulation and were told that satisfactory performance as a supervisor had previously been indicative of real-life supervisory success. Satisfactory performance was defined as maintaining the production level of the workers at or above a specified standard.
Goodstadt and Hjelle found that the university students with an external locus of control were less likely than those with an internal locus of control to rely on personal persuasion tactics and significantly more likely to use coercive power (i.e. threatening to fire someone), when dealing with a resistant worker.13 Students with an internal locus of control relied more on informational power than those with an external locus of control. Based on the persuasive and power tactics used, participants with an internal locus of control were more persuasive than those with an external locus of control (the “psychologically powerless”).13
These findings suggest there can be negative consequences when “psychologically powerless” people acquire positions of power.13 People with an external locus of control can use coercive power to influence social institutions and government, potentially resulting in dangerous retaliation. Influential organizations should be cognizant of the use of coercion, to ensure that it isn’t abused (i.e. implementing action policies).
Related TDL Content
Is power, or how power is used, what makes someone a great leader? Does it matter if we train leaders to use the appropriate base of power for a given circumstance? According to the Great Man Theory, great leaders are born, not made. This theory states that people in positions of power deserve to lead because of the characteristics they were born with. Read through this article to decide whether you agree with the Great Man Theory, and how the bases of social power would influence leadership under the theory.
- Powerful. (2021, June 25). Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/powerful#learn-more
- French, J. R. P., Raven, B. H., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of Organization Theory, 7, 311-320.
- Raven, B. H. (1992). A power/interaction model of interpersonal influence: French and Raven thirty years later. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 7(2), 217–244.
- Psychology Prof. Emeritus John R. P. French Jr. died Oct. 14. (1995, October 17). Michigan News: University of Michigan. https://news.umich.edu/psychology-prof-emeritus-john-r-p-french-jr-died-oct-14/
- Sears, D. O. (2020, March 2). Bertram H. Raven (1926-2020). UCLA: Psychology. https://www.psych.ucla.edu/news/bertram-h-raven-1926-2020
- Quain, S. (2019, February 4). The advantages of coercive power in the workplace. Houston Chronicle. https://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-coercive-power-workplace-18511.html
- Pierro, A., Cicero, L., & Raven, B. H. (2008). Motivated compliance with bases of social power. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(7), 1921-1944.
- Miller, R. S. (2018). Intimate Relationships (8th ed.). McGraw-Hill.
- Oriña, M. M., Wood, W., & Simpson, J. A. (2002). Strategies of influence in close relationships. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 459-472.
- Geoghegan, D. (2017). The Successful Leader. Expert Program Management.
- Khatri, N., Budhwar, P., & Fern, C. T. (1999). Employee turnover: Bad attitude or poor management? Singapore: Nanyang Technological University, 2(5), 19-99.
- Hofmann, E., Hartl, B., Gangl, K., Hartner-Tiefenthaler, M., & Kirchler, E. (2017). Authorities’ coercive and legitimate power: The impact on cognitions underlying cooperation. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 5.
- Goodstadt, B. E., & Hjelle, L. A. (1973). Power to the powerless: Locus of control and the use of power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27(2), 190-196.