Covid-19: The Dysfunctional Effect of Coercive Power to Control the Pandemic.

Ragnhild Silkoset

Active use of role models with integrity, trust and commitment are constructive options to change people's behavior in the current demanding situation.

This article is written by Arne Nygaard, Professor, Kristiania University College and Visiting Scholar at Florida Atlantic University, Florida, USA.
Roland Kidwell, DeSantis Distinguished Professor, Florida Atlantic University, Florida, USA. Ragnhild Silkoset, Professor, BI Norwegian Business School and Visiting Scholar at Florida Atlantic University, Florida, USA.

Influence, persuasion and communication represent a large and complicated area that governments and businesses must now deal with to limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus—even more so if they are to enjoy high public trust. Most people feel a strong duty and responsibility to reduce the levels of infection. This has given government authorities legitimacy to introduce strict measures, such as harsh restrictions and punitive measures aimed at companies, organizations and individuals. However, our research shows that confidence in the use of power to change people's behavior has both limitations and opportunities. Our findings suggest that if one really wants to change people's attitudes and behaviors, positive role models and experts—not coercion—are the most important factors in influencing behavior. Coercion may terminate trust that is needed to facilitate anti Covid-19 strategies.

Orders, threats, rules and coercion

A few years ago, we published research articles in the highly regarded Journal of Business Ethics in which we presented a finding that may be disturbing in the present situation: Use of coercion, threats, punishment and restrictions as an influence strategy may have the opposite effect of what is intended. Our studies suggest that the use of "coercive power" often leads to "counteracting power" that creates conflict and eliminates trust and consensus—thereby reducing the shared responsibility and duty that we need now. As regards Covid-19, such a regime leads to the termination of the collective "social contract." Furthermore, the use of "coercive force" can produce negative or even dysfunctional effects. It is not surprising that we now see demonstrations in Italy, the UK, the United States and Germany against strict measures that people perceive as intrusive "coercive power." The use of coercion can lead to more undesirable effects than the pandemic it intends to stamp out. Often, centralized measures come in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong groups.

The debate over school closures in the United States is one example—as is well known, children are at a much lower risk of being affected by Covid-19. This is the reason why centralized coercive power often does not work during incidents such as a pandemic. The counteractive power that we now see being mobilized may be a reaction to the dysfunctional effects of coercive power through lockdowns, i.e., increased alcoholism and drug use, suicide rate, abuse, depression, unemployment and economic collapse.

Our research also found that the use of "the power of example" is much stronger than previously thought. The studies are based on data from companies that are now also exposed to government coercive schemes such as strong regulations, restrictions and closure. Therefore, it may be interesting to apply our research findings to the current situation.

The "toolbox" that authorities have in the form of power is something we have understood since the classic study of power by French and Raven in 1959: Power, i.e., the ability to get people to do things they otherwise would not have done, is a complicated puzzle of mainly five different influencing strategies:

  1. coercion
  2. expertise
  3. legitimacy
  4. reward and compensation
  5. the "power of example" through references to, for example, role models.

Our studies suggest that the use of intrusive coercion to change behavior can have negative results. On the other hand, they also show that expert power and positive role models are essential to changing behavior.

Introducing intrusive coercive programs to change behavior is often the easiest strategy to deal with an external shock such as Covid-19. Coercion may, of course, be necessary initially to attune people's attitudes to the fact that health authorities have legitimate power to influence behavior. Thus, the use of coercive power leads people to change their view of the role of health authorities. However, our data suggest that long-term coercion may have the opposite effect of what is intended.

Coercion (Do as I say, not as I do) versus Role Models (Do as I do)

What surprised us most in our studies was the importance of role models. When role models show the way, this creates strong positive impulses that build up under collective rationality. This is the power of example. A crown prince, a politician or a celebrity picking up rubbish or sharing their healthy lifestyle is a powerful symbol that confirms that we are on the same team, we work towards equal goals. Thus, we follow their positive actions because we identify with their intentions as good role models. In corporate management, role models are often used as a strategy to stimulate team spirit and enthusiasm.

A pandemic is an external shock that requires inspiring leaders who can lead us through difficult times using both words and actions, not lip service.

Our findings demonstrate how role models influence team spirit, change behavior, and produce positive outcomes. But role models who should embody positive values can easily turn the other way. The power of example may be equally negative, and there is a long list of cases—e.g., O.J. Simpson (Herz), Tiger Woods (Nike) or Lance Armstrong (Budweiser)—showing that connections with role models also involve risks.

Political role models also influence people during a pandemic. In May this year, a woman in Texas was sentenced to 7 days in prison for reopening her hair salon. These were the consequences of coercing the population to comply with the Covid-19 guidelines. Not long after, Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the House of Representatives, was spotted breaking the Covid-19 rules in San Francisco when she was caught in flagrante delicto without a mask in a hair salon that was supposed to be closed. Pelosi is one of the strongest supporters of the aggressive use of "coercive power" through measures such as lockdowns, punishments and mask use.

The same thing happened to the Czech minister of health, Roman Prymula, an epidemiologist and the chief architect of all the coercive measures implemented in the Czech Republic. Prymula was caught on tape without a mandatory face mask in one of the city's best restaurants, which should have been closed according to the rules he himself had introduced.

It is unhelpful and damaging when those who are involved in making the rules themselves do not follow them. It gives the impression that the "elite" escape their own rules—"one rule for me, one rule for thee" type of behavior. Role models' ability to influence through the power of the example can have both a strong positive and negative effect on collective behavior. Therefore, hypocrisy among role models erodes collective responsibility. When analyzing our data, we were surprised at how powerful role models are in influencing behavior and performance.

Expert power influence behavior

Expert power as a basis for influence will have effects only as long as we trust that the "experts" have a more knowledge-based background than others able to comment on Covid-19. Once the dust has settled after the Covid-19 pandemic, the power of expertise to influence behavior will have to undergo a major revision. Not only have "facts" not turned out to be "facts," but institutions and authorities have made different, altered and opposite recommendations. Confidence in "expertise" is strongly linked to consistency between experts in different phases of a pandemic.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States, for example, changed its recommendation on mask use and the World Health Organization (WHO) waited until March 11 to declare Covid-19 a pandemic. Two of the world's most prestigious medical journals, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine, published research based on data from a small Illinois-based firm, Surgisphere Corp., which is now accused of fabricating the data. Ultimately, this prompted the WHO to halt international experiments with hydroxychloroquine. Amid the pandemic, two of the most important journals of medicine, which certify quality of research in this area, were accused of allowing research fraud.

Experts are accused of pursuing politics and politicians are accused of interfering in the domain of experts. Professor Didier Raoult, the lead scientist in a research center in Marseille that conducts research on malaria medicine, has suddenly become a political activist with support from President Macron. Experts’ ability to influence the population will always depend on the public's trust in them. Politics and expertise can therefore be a toxic combination if there are role conflicts.

Covid-19 has shown that the "expert power" to influence people to comply with recommendations is about to "erode" because experts have become part of political struggle for power. We see the shaping of a dysfunctional role conflict between experts and politicians. Expertise is a key factor in achieving performance, as our studies suggest. That is why the unequivocal role of experts in the service of knowledge must be emphasized right now. Their ability to translate "objective" advice and documented knowledge and research into active action by people has been more important than ever during Covid-19.

At the same time, we see a flourishing skepticism towards one-sided expert power if results are not achieved. The situation in Sweden is an illustrating example. As the French politician Georges Clemenceau said during World War I that "war is too important to be left to the generals," this pandemic with its enormous global economic and political consequences is too important to be left to a few epidemiologists.

So What?

A pandemic is a disruptive shock. It requires the rational behavior of an entire population in a short period of time. But we see that the expectation of quick solutions and active action often leads to ill-considered strategies to influence people, companies and organizations. The use of intrusive coercive force may lead to counteractive power, loss of trust and increasing conflict in a society. Our studies suggest that expert power and the active use of role models with integrity, trust and commitment are constructive options to change people's behavior in the current demanding situation.


The article is an extended version of an article in Spectactor.org 14.12.20.

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Published 18. December 2020

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