DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Power-Coercive Approach

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

by Selam Hailu (Fall 2016) & Elle Pope (Spring 2015)

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


The power-coercive approach is a strategy that attempts to bring the desired change within a system or an individual by the use of power or force to comply with a standard or behavior (1). The strategy is derived from individual’s ability to influence others through punishments and sanctions (2). It can also be considered as individual’s ability to influence an individual’s decision making by threatening or punishment if they do not follow instructions (3).


The power-coercion approach is one of the three classic approaches to the implementation of change in social, organizational, and public policy contexts (1). Assumptions under this approach are:


  1. Power includes individual rights and is legitimate.
  2. People who hold power have the responsibility to give directions and instructions to other people in the system.
  3. People in power have the right to punish those who do not follow their directions and instructions.
  4. People in the hierarchy know what is best for the institution (4).

The basis for the utilization of the power-coercion approach is its ability to provide expedient and effective results. However, the ethical boundary is thin as it is restricting individuals’ freedom and choice (5). While sometimes used to bring about beneficial results, such as examples mapped out in Table 1 (below), it can also be used for dangerous or damaging results like racial segregation.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Table 1. Examples of power-coercion approach.




Route of power-coercion



An organization wants its employees to perform well

Applies pay cuts, demotions, write ups, layoffs, terminations

Employees perform well for fear of getting demoted, fired or to prevent the demotions, pay cuts etc.

Public Health

Health education campaigns at the primary health care level

The Ministry of health penalize primary health care services that do not provide health education to patients that come to their facilities .

Fear of penalties from the ministry makes the  primary health care services to provide the educational campaigns

Law Enforcement

To enforce seat belt legislation

The Ministry of transport through the traffic police controls and penalize drivers driving without a seat belt.

Fear of being pulled over and fined increases seat belt use dramatically

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Coercive power is one of the earliest types of power in the workplace (6). For example, whatever the boss says is taken without question whether right or wrong and executed. While the power-coercive approach has been used throughout history, the analysis and understanding of its effects only recently emerged in the 1970s amidst Cold War tensions and social unrest movements when efforts to influence others to avoid calamitous outcomes were mounting (5). The first seminal papers were published during this time, including “Coercion,” by Robert Nozick and “General Strategies for Effecting Changes in Human Systems,” by Robert Chin and Kenneth Benne (7,8).


Nozick’s influential paper identified coercion as “the way one agent can put pressure on the will of another by means of threats,” and then provided a list of conditions under which coercion should be analyzed (7). Chin and Benne viewed coercion as one of three primary strategies for effecting change, the others being empirical-rational and normative-re educative (8). These three have since become widely used within socio-ecological models of explaining behavior and techniques for change (9). This helps to understand what type and level of force and coercion should be applied in order to bring the desired outcome.


Public Health and the Use of the Power-Coercion Approach

The power-coercive approach is regularly utilized by governments and public health authorities to get individuals and businesses to adhere to health and safety policies and strategies.


For instance, the seat-belt law saves thousands of lives each day. The Center for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) reported that 33,000 Americans lost their lives to car accidents in 2009 alone. More than half of the people killed did not wear seat belts at the time of the accidents. Laws enforced to wear seat-belts have proven to be effective in reducing death as well as serious injuries from car accidents. For example; 17,000 lives would have been saved if all of the drivers and passengers were restrained at the time of the accidents. It is estimated that seat-belt laws and effective implementation of policies would reduce death from car accidents by 45% and from serious injuries by 50% (10).


The power-coercion approach is used in many political maneuvers. It can be seen from the US propositions to prevent undocumented immigrants from utilizing publicly funded health care (13). It can also be seen within terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who rely upon power-coercion to generate fear and anxiety among political targets (such as those who practice or engage in Western medicine practices) to place pressure upon certain groups or nations to acquiesce to their demands.


Limitations of Power-Coercion

The application of power-coercive approach might bring about the desired change in an individual’s behavior in the short term but sometimes it may have a negative impact on the overall performance of an organization in the long term. For example, employees might leave the company as soon as the next opportunity presents itself and replacing employees adds cost to the organization. It might also lead to employees following instructions for the “wrong reasons” for instance, employees may not participate in an unethical manner for the fear of being punished rather than believing that their action is intrinsically unethical. This had been shown to increase the probability of employees engaging in unethical activities when they think the risk of being caught is low (11).


Authority through power-coercion is often unsustainable, expensive and can incite backlash. These limitations can vary in strength depending on the type of behavior the threat is intending to inhibit, otherwise called "autonomous probability" (12).



(1) French J, Raven B. The Bases of Social Power. University of Michigan: Institute for Social Research; 1959. Chapter 6. 151-155. Available at: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/215915730_The_bases_of_social_power


(2) Bass BM, Stogdill RM. Handbook of leadership. New York: Free Press; 1990 Jul.


(3) Holmes J, Stubbe M. Power and politeness in the workplace: A sociolinguistic analysis of talk at work. Routledge; 2015 Feb 20.


(4) Miles M, Thangaraj A, Wang D, Ma H. Classic theories, contemporary applications: A comparative study of the implementation of innovation in Canadian and Chinese public sector environments. Faculty of Administration, University of Ottawa= Faculté d'administration, Université d'Ottawa; 2002.


(5) Molm L. Coercive Power in Social Exchange. New York: Cambridge University Press; 1997 Jan 28.


(6) Luckham D. The power of events. Reading: Addison-Wesley; 2002 May.


(7) Nozick R. Coercion. Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel, Sidney Morgenbesser, Patrick Suppes, and Morton White (eds.), New York: St. Martin’s Press; 1969. p. 440-472.


(8) Chin R, Benne K. General strategies for effecting changes in human systems. Boston University: Human Relations Center; 1969.


(9) Anderson S. The Enforcement Approach. J of Ethics & Social Philosophy. 2010 October; 5(1): 1-31. Available from: http://www.jesp.org/PDF/TheEnforcementApproachFinal.pdf


(10) Policy Impact: Seat Belts. (2014). Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/seatbeltbrief/


(11) Randall DM. Leadership and the Use of Power: Shaping an Ethical Climate. The Journal of Applied Christian Leadership. 2012 Apr 1;6(1):28. 


(12) Malpas J. Coercion [Internet]. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2014 [cited 2015 March 8]. Available from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/coercion/


(13) Fenton JJ, Moss N, Khalil HG, Asch S. Effect of California’s proposition 187 on the use of primary care clinics. Western J of Med; 1997 Jan; 166(1): 16-20. Available from:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1303951/


Additional Information and Resources

More information on the power-coercion approach can be found in the resources below:


  • Chin R, Benne K. General strategies for effecting changes in human systems. Boston University: Human Relations Center; 1969.
  • Nozick R. Coercion. Philosophy, Science, and Method: Essays in Honor of Ernest Nagel, Sidney Morgenbesser, Patrick Suppes, and Morton White (eds.), New York: St. Martin’s Press; 1969. p. 440-472.



DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.