Understanding power: authority and coercion

In a couple of our previous posts we have contrasted leadership with ‘authority’ and ‘coercion’. But what are these exactly? What do we mean when we say that a police force can look to authority in place of coercion? Or that Hitler used coercive tactics in addition to leadership?

We are being deliberate in our choice of words, and it is well worth spending some time explaining exactly what we mean. Leadership and related concepts are going to get a lot of coverage in this blog, and it would be stupid of us to think that our understanding of the terms we use is the only understanding. After all, these are common terms with multiple alternative common definitions.

So let’s do the groundwork. It will become the basis of an enviable level of clarity and insight around these ideas. So…

Authority and coercion, along with leadership, are distinct but highly related psychological pathways to social power.

First though, what do we even mean by ‘social power’?

To have social power is to be able to direct the actions of others in an intended direction. Said otherwise, it is the capacity to change the behaviour of others so that other people become extensions of our own will. Another term you might hear used to for this is ‘influence’,[1] and someone is often said to have influence if they have a great impact on others. We, however, prefer to reserve the term influence for something a bit more specific…

For us, influencing someone is to have that person come to think the way that you think. It is the act of changing, or the capacity to change, the beliefs, values, and attitudes of others to become more in line with your own beliefs, values, and attitudes. Another popular way of saying this is that a certain understanding of the world has been internalized.

This can be contrasted with ‘compliance’. Here, compliance is to have someone choose to act as you want them to act, without coming to agree with you. In other words, you have the public behaviour you want, without private acceptance.

We can think of these (i.e. social power, influence, and compliance) as social outcomes, with one outcome encompassing two of the others.

But really we want to talk about the three processes that drive these outcomes. We have already introduced one, leadership, elsewhere. Now for the other two:


Authority stems from the belief that someone has the right to make certain claims about how the world is or how the world should be. A good example of someone who wields authority would be a GP or doctor. When we go to visit a GP that person is likely to tell us what is wrong with us,[2] as well as what we should do about it. We then change our ideas and views to fall into line with that advice. We believe that we have that syndrome, and we take the medicine as prescribed. This is because we believe that GPs are legitimate sources of information when it comes to health diagnosis and treatment.

Not all of us do though. For some of us GPs are not an authority on health and medicine; one person’s authority is another person’s quack. Authority is subjective and it stems from the norms and beliefs that we subscribe to.


Coercion is to be compelled to do something in spite of our own beliefs and values. We are coerced at any time that we do what another person wants, not because we believe they are right, but because they determine some outcome that is important to us. And this doesn’t just mean punishment. Yes, we can be coerced by punishment, but we can also be coerced by reward. An accolade or prize desired strongly enough can also cause someone to act against their ideals. Either way, the outcome is compliance, not acceptance.

So there you go, three pathways to social power concisely defined and contrasted. Painless enough, and now we are set up for blog posts to come. In fact, for quick reference, here is what it looks like put together:

Don't stress if you use the terms differently. Most people do. This framework is only critical when you really start drilling into the core of social power.

Use these terms differently? That’s ok. This framework is only critical when you start looking at social power close up.

Some of my peers will recognize this diagram as closely in line with John Turner’s excellent analysis of social power.[3] And they would be right to. The model that we adopt here is heavily informed by Turner and colleagues’ insights into power and social influence. In fact, expect to hear further details of that perspective in future.

For those who can’t wait though, feel free to read ahead. As part of a special virtual journal issue celebrating John Turner’s life and work, his paper ‘Explaining the nature of power: A three-process theory’ is available online and without the usual paywall. I can’t recommend it highly enough. He turns the mainstream understanding of social power on its head.

Feeling scholarly? Click the image to head over to the full version of the paper.

Feeling scholarly? Click the image to head over to the full version of the paper.

Now, if you haven’t studied management, you can stop reading here.

Go on, leave. It’s cool. We hope you enjoyed the post and look forward to seeing you next time.

Right, now for all you former management students.

“Three? Pfft, amateurs. I was taught that there are at least five, or maybe six, bases of social power.”

Yes, we hear you, but bear with us for a second.

As stated out the outset, what we are describing are the three psychological pathways to social power, with the emphasis on psychological. In other words, our focus is on the internal processes that allow acts of social power to occur. This is different to French and Raven’s very popular five process (and then six process) model. That model focuses on the different possible characteristics of those with power. That is, they structure their analysis around different types of powerful people.

And that’s fine. It is just that we want to start with a good understanding of the psychology before branching out into the ways that someone can affect that psychology.

Expect us to flesh this out sometime soon. It is actually pretty illustrative to boil the five process model down to three; we can demonstrate how our three process model helps untangle some things.

Also expect us to spend some time on the differences between Turner’s three process model and other popular three process models of power. Namely, those from Herbert Kelman and Amitai Etzioni.[4][5] Don’t be fooled by the apparent resemblance (e.g. Kelman’s compliance, identification, and internalization sounds very similar). These three process models are not equivalent, and really it is only Turner’s that properly captures the social identity processes that are so critical to social power. To be frank, these alternative models miss the boat a bit.

So don’t think that this is all just terminological housekeeping. Yes, it is about getting us all on the same page, but it is also about getting us all on the right page.


[1] French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. H. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Studies in social power (pp. 150–167). Ann Arbor, MI: Institute of Social Research.

[2] Hopefully restricted to the context of health.

[3] Turner, J. C. (2005). Explaining the nature of power: A three-process theory. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35(1), 1-22.

[4] Kelman, H. C. (1958). Compliance, identification, and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of conflict resolution, 51-60.

[5] Etzioni, A. (1975). Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, Rev. Simon and Schuster.

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