Coercive Power

Wherein I argue that it's easier for coercive power to take over a collaborative system than the reverse.

By Jen Overbeck in power

July 29, 2021

First, a note on terminology

In my recent theoretical writing, I’ve wrestled with the terms for these ideas. Nate Fast and I have devised the terms associative power, or power with, versus dissociative power, or power against. But these terms are a bit specialized for use in a blog post. More familiar, but still academic, are the terms collaborative versus coercive or functional versus dominant…and scholars and writers use many more than this! I’m going to use “collaborative/coercive” below–recognizing that there’s more to it than these labels capture. But let’s not get hung up on words. 😉

Coercive beats collaborative

I want to argue that it’s easier for coercive power to take over (to supplant an existing power system) than it is for collaborative power. For example, consider the pattern throughout history by which a series of strong men or strong houses take turns deposing one another, slaughtering their enemies, and ruling.

It’s easier to use force and strength and violence–to dominate–than it is to use consensus, which is the basis of a collaborative system. Consensus requires the willing assent of many people. The leader must persuade people, mobilize them, and maintain their support, all of which is difficult and costly. Examples throughout history show that a smaller number of people equipped with the means for violence can dominate a large population. To rule through consensus, on the other hand, requires broad agreement, and we all know how hard it is to get masses of people to agree.

It appears easier to convince a lot of people to obey than to convince them to participate. That may at first seem unlikely, but to obey means that you have less cognitive load, less burden of identifying the actions to be taken and driving those actions. The person who obeys is relieved of responsibility, both for getting things done and in the sense that, ultimately, you’re not answerable for whatever happens. You can just deny any accountability for something that turns out poorly–just look at the Milgram obedience studies, where a key assurance made by the experimenter, “I am responsible,” served to amplify destructive obedience.

If a leader wants to use collaborative power, on the other hand, they need the group to play a more active role. Non-leaders must still exert effort and carry some responsibility. Much more is demanded of ordinary group members; yet research suggests that people want to avoid such demands. Consider the recent research on people’s desire not to think too much. People don’t want to engage in difficult effortful cognition–in some cases, they will even endure pain to avoid it, or pay money to avoid difficult information. And this is consequential for collaborative-power systems: If you’re carrying some of the weight in how power is exercised in the system, you’re going to have to think; you’re going to have to use your brain and work and come up with plans, and deal with occasional unpleasantness. And if people don’t want to do that, then suddenly it looks a lot better to obey. You can keep your head down, fly under the radar, and try not to attract attention that will bring the costs of coercion down on you.

Finally, it’s easier to have people learn coercive power (than collaborative) from watching the leader, because coercive power tends to be concentrated in fewer individuals, so there are fewer people to watch. Also, some of my research suggests that we look around to see how other people respond; and with the coercive leader, what we see is people jumping to obey. However, with a collaborative leader, the constructive response might be harder to see and more distributed, so social learning can’t produce as rapid or pronounced a response.

The Paradox of Tolerance

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.—In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Karl Popper

Popper’s discussion of tolerance also applies well to power. Social learning, reinforcement, and cultural dynamics all suggest that the presence of even one coercive power holder is sufficient to change an organization’s (or political body’s?) culture toward coercive power.

Example: An organization has been working well with a collaborative system for a long time. A new division leader is hired; this person has a coercive approach to power. She hoards it and uses it destructively. Her direct reports soon learn to protect themselves by catering to her whims, even though they must do things that are worse for the company and its people in the process. Her colleagues learn that she tries to put them at a disadvantage; if they call her on it, she denies it and punishes them covertly. They learn to conduct pre-emptive strikes, to take a defensive posture. Because she won’t collaborate, the only way to get around her obstruction is by out-maneuvering her; soon, a lot of energy is being put into political ploys rather than just running the organization. Over time, people learn that they can win rewards for that behavior, and they lose if they try to avoid it. The culture becomes coercive overall.

If this is an accurate picture of the effect that one coercive power holder can have, then healthy organizations should always be striving to keep such people out. Likewise, the helix reflects the idea that the chief threat to a legitimate (collaborative) system is the emergence of individuals who see opportunity to exploit the rules for personal benefit. Therefore, if you want to preserve that system, you need to take out those people who see opportunity.

This appears antithetical to the whole notion of, for example, participatory democracy, AKA democracy with tolerance. But this is the parallel with Popper’s argument about intolerance: The prerequisite aim of any system must generally be the survival of that system. And any system must recognize that, for it to survive, it must maintain power. So if, for example, the system (the company’s collaborative culture; a nation’s democracy) is attacked on a coercive basis, then it must defend itself–it must take out that threat. Even though it seems paradoxical to exercise power coercively in a collaborative system, we must at some point rely on the backbone of the helix. We hope that coercive action can be limited to a short time, but we must use it if we’re to keep collaboration alive.