Coercive power refers to the power a leader has to distribute punishments or disincentives when their subordinates fail to comply or do not meet standards set by the authority.
“Coercive power, the opposite of reward power, describes the leader’s ability to punish subordinates for failure to comply or for the exhibition of some undesirable behavior. Reprimands, threats, demotions, and undesirable work assignments are all manifestations of coercive power.” (Fiore, 2004, p. 11)2
Coercive Power Examples
1. Manager who Creates a Punishment for Lateness
A manager at a retail store would exhibit coercive authority if they implement a policy where employees who show up late to their shifts three times in a month will have their hours cut for the next month.
When a staff member continues to come in late, the manager enforces the policy by cutting the employee’s hours in the following month.
This is an example of the manager using their coercive power to discourage employees from coming late to their shifts. The intended outcome is the improved punctuality of the employees, but at the same time, employees may feel frustrated that the manager is not empathetic to issues such as poor public transit, late posting of schedules, or unreasonably early start times.
2. CEO who Penalizes Failure to Meet Sales Targets
The CEO of a company might be using coercive power if he warns his senior sales team that if they do not reach their quarterly sales targets, their commissions will be significantly decreased.
When the quarter ends, the CEO stays true to his threat and greatly reduces the commissions of those sales executives who haven’t met their targets.
This is an example of the CEO resorting to coercion to motivate his team to increase sales. While this approach might spur the executives to work harder, it may also create a high-stress environment and negatively impact morale, potentially leading to a decrease in overall productivity and sales.
3. Teacher who Imposes Consequences for Incomplete Homework
A high school teacher might demonstrate coercive power by setting a rule that any student who doesn’t complete their homework three times in a semester will receive detention.
When a student fails to submit their homework three times, the teacher implements the rule and assigns the student to detention.
In this scenario, the teacher is using coercive power to enforce the importance of completing homework. While this power may motivate some students to be more disciplined in doing their tasks, it may also generate a sense of fear and resentment among the students, potentially hampering their love for learning.
4. Police Officer who Issues a Ticket for Speeding
A police officer exhibits coercive power when they inform a driver that they are issuing a ticket for going over the speed limit.
Upon catching a motorist speeding, the police officer exercises his authority and issues the speeding ticket, as promised.
In this situation, the police officer is utilizing coercive power to enforce traffic laws and ensure driver safety. Although the punitive fine may deter some drivers from speeding in the future, others may perceive this as a harsh measure, potentially breeding resentment towards law enforcement.
5. Coach who Benches Players for Poor Performance
A sports coach can exhibit coercive power by declaring that any player who fails to perform adequately in two consecutive games will be benched in the following one.
When a player’s performance dips for two back-to-back games, the coach keeps his word and benches the player for the next match.
This is an instance of the coach using coercive power to maintain the quality of the team’s play. While it might drive some athletes to improve their skills, it could also generate fear and anxiety among the team, potentially lowering team spirit and overall performance.
Full List of Examples
- A police officer: can give out fines for speeding.
- A teacher: can hold children in at lunchtime for misbehavior.
- A librarian: might impose late fees for overdue books.
- A soccer referee: can issue yellow or red cards for foul play.
- A bus driver: may refuse entry if a passenger doesn’t pay the fare.
- A parent: might send a child to their room for not following rules.
- A principal: can implement detention for students breaking school policies.
- A lifeguard: can whistle people out of the water for unsafe swimming.
- A dog trainer: might use a stern voice to correct a dog’s behavior.
- A movie theater manager: can ask patrons to leave for disrupting a film.
- A fitness trainer: might require extra push-ups as consequence for lateness to a session.
- A zookeeper: may restrict an animal’s movement for aggressive behavior.
- A boss: can issue a warning to employees for underperformance.
- A moderator: might mute participants for inappropriate comments in a discussion.
- A judge: can order compulsory community service for certain offenses.
- A store manager: may prohibit entry for individuals not wearing masks (if mandated).
- A coach: can bench a player for not adhering to team strategies or rules.
- A game show host: might disqualify a participant for breaking rules.
- A community pool manager: can enforce swim test requirements for access to deeper areas.
- A museum guard: might enforce rules about not touching exhibits.
- A parking attendant: can issue tickets for illegal parking.
- A network administrator: might restrict internet access for breach of usage policies.
- A government official: may impose fines for non-compliance with regulations.
- A train conductor: can ask passengers to disembark for travelling without a valid ticket.
- A school cafeteria worker: might deny dessert for those who misbehave in the lunch line.
Benefits and Limitations of Coercive Power
A key benefit is that coercive power follows the simple but effective rules of operant conditioning – the greater the punishment or reward, the greater the likelihood of compliance.
As Fiore (2004, p. 11) argues, “the subordinates’ perceptions of the punishment’s strengths have a strong influence over the degree to which coercive power actually influences behavior.”2
In this sense, this type of power can be easily used and manipulated to achieve results.
Other Types of Power in Leadership
According to the leadership authority taxonomy presented by French and Raven (French, Raven & Cartwright, 1959)3, there are five main types of power that a leader can have.
Each type of power has its own unique features, pros, and cons. However, you can also stack power – for example, people with coercive authority often also have reward authority to offset it.
Most literature highlights that expert and referent power are ideal because they can compel followers to respect and trust the leader1,2,9, as opposed to coercive and reward power which tend to foster resentment and friction within the team.
|Base of Power||Definition||Features|
|Legitimate Power||Derived from a position of authority within a hierarchy, such as a manager’s power over employees.||Respect for this leader is often short-lived if not complemented by other types of power.|
|Reward Power||Power is sustained through distribution of rewards or positive incentives to others, encouraging certain behaviors.||Highly effective if rewards align with desires; can wane in influence over time (extinction); can unintentionally decrease intrinsic desire.|
|Coercive Power||Derived from the ability to punish or threaten others to encourage compliance or change behavior.||Can be highly effective but leads to fear, sense of alienation, and resentment.|
|Expert Power||Arises from possessing knowledge and expertise in a particular area, which others respect or rely on.||Respected when transparency is present; leaders spend less time monitoring employee performance, is most effective when paired with referent power.|
|Referent Power||Rooted in personal characteristics or interpersonal skills that inspire admiration, respect, or emulation from others10.||Garners commitment, enthusiasm and loyalty from followers. Less monitoring or micromanaging required.|
(Adapted from Fiore, 2004)2
 French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7(311-320), 1.
 Fiore, D. J. (2004). Introduction to Educational Administration: Standards, Theories, and Practice. Eye On Education.
 Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and Practice. SAGE Publications.
 Harris, O. J., & Hartman, S. J. (2001). Organizational Behavior. Best Business Books.
 Reid, L. F., & Kawash, J. (2017). Let’s talk about power: How teacher use of power shapes relationships and learning. Papers on postsecondary learning and teaching, 2, 34-41. (Source)
 Lunenburg, F. C. (2012). Power and leadership: An influence process. International journal of management, business, and administration, 15(1), 1-9.
 Idrus, A. (2020). The effect of coercive power and reward toward teacher’s job satisfaction. International Journal of Innovation, Creativity and Change, 12(5), 491-504.
 Landa, D., & Tyson, S. A. (2017). Coercive leadership. American Journal of Political Science, 61(3), 559-574. (Source)
 Savage, T. V., & Savage, M. K. (2010). Successful Classroom Management and Discipline: Teaching Self-Control and Responsibility. SAGE Publications.
 Murray, D., & Chua, S. (2015). What is leadership. Leadership in sport, 9.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]