In some settings, the line between the two effects is difficult to see
Coercion may prevent many transgressions; but it robs even actions which are legal of a part of their beauty. Freedom may lead to many transgressions, but it lends even to vices a less ignoble form. — Wilhelm von Humboldt
Persuasion is getting someone to agree or do something willingly. Coercion is getting someone to agree or do something unwillingly. Unfortunately, in some settings, the line between the two effects is difficult to see.
I have encountered many situations where leaders thought they had persuaded when, in reality, they had coerced. When in doubt, we can ask a simple question: Would the opinion or action persist if the leader were not around? If it would, the audience — employees or colleagues, for example — has probably been persuaded. If the opinion or action would die the moment the leader leaves the organization, then we are probably dealing with coercion.
It is critical that speakers with high status relative to their audiences (i.e., leaders) understand the difference between the two methods and make sure that their efforts are clearly aimed at persuasion, whenever possible. Coercion certainly is required in some settings — from law enforcement to the battlefield — but in most settings persuasion is a better leadership strategy in the long run.
In my coaching, one of the things I sometimes work on with senior leaders is understanding whether specific messages they (or their organization) use persuade or coerce, and it is sometimes a difficult distinction to get right, since there are different ways to coerce someone. Take, for example, the boss who suggests that someone on his team read a certain management book, so that they can discuss its ideas at a later date. The employee is in a tricky situation: the idea is a “suggestion,” supposedly, which means that the employee could choose to not read the book. Is that really the case, however? Is it more likely that the employee feels that she has to read the book, in order to seem to value her boss’ suggestions or the ideas of the author.
The example above is an easy one to spot, but many are more subtle and organizations land on the wrong side of this divide constantly. Hotels tell us that certain fees are “optional” when we know that, in reality, they are not. Human Resource organizations put out policies that “encourage” certain behaviors, even though everyone knows that a steep price will be paid for not following them. Indeed, in some business cultures coercion is a way of life, as employees work endless hours to keep up with peers. We see this effect at this moment, in debates within many political and social organizations where “litmus tests” on this or that issue are proposed to get everyone aligned to a given position.
In short, whenever we communicate from a position of high status relative to our audience, we should be as clear as possible about where persuasion ends and coercion begins. As we know, coercion can work for some people and for some time, but it is most often not how we wish to effect change in the people and world around us.