Co-active vs. Coercive Power

Learning to Distinguish Between "Power with" vs. "Power Over"

“The whole group of them, looking. Birders, geologists, microbiologists, ecologists, evolutionary zoologists, soil experts, high priests of water. Each of them knows innumerable minute, local truths. Some work on projects designed to run for two hundred years or more. Some are straight out of Ovid, humans on their way to turning into greener things. Together, they form one great symbiotic association, like the ones they study.”

- Richard Powers, The Overstory (recommended reading in honor of Earth Month)

FOOD-FOR-THOUGHT: ‘Power With’ or ‘Power Over’

Last week, we attended the Lab’s inspiring Stewardship Values Town Hall where we were not only reminded of the values that bind us together as citizens of this community, but also of the immense work we accomplish through team science, interdisciplinarity, and our inter-organizational relationships and exchanges with one another.

Symbiotic associations and relationships are not confined to the natural world. Organizations are highly complex social systems, and just like biological ones, rely on different forms of interdependency to survive and thrive. Some of these forms of symbiosis are reciprocal and mutually-beneficial to both parties, while others are asymmetrical and benefit one party at the expense of the other. In organizational life and the practice of leadership (note: everyone has the potential to lead and influence others, not just those with formal leadership titles), the difference between these two types of symbiosis boil down to how power is distributed between people, regardless of their role or position:

Is power being exercised by someone over someone else (i.e., coercive power)? Or is power being extended by someone with/to someone else (i.e., co-active power)?

Historically, the fields of organizational behavior and management science have focused a lot of attention on “power over”/coercive dynamics, like competition, scientific management & command-and-control management practices, formal authority, etc. Since the 2000s, however, in recognition that an increasingly complex world requires new forms of innovation, agility, and empowerment, researchers have begun focusing more on how organizations can better cultivate participatory, human-centered, and “power with”/co-active practices between employees and among teams.

But this is hardly a new idea.


From Theory…

Mary Parker Follett (1868 – 1933) is one of the unsung heroes and founders of management and organizational theory in the western world. She was an experienced community organizer, an early proponent of diversity in organizations, and deeply influential on the work of her more famous white male counterparts and successors (e.g., Max Weber, Chester Barnard, Peter Drucker, Chris Arygris, Peter Senge).

The crux of her work was around power, democracy, and her empirically-tested beliefs that anyone within an organizational structure can exercise leadership if given the power to make decisions, to form connections, to take ownership over one’s work. She coined the terms “coercive power” and “co-active power,” drawing a clear distinction between the former, which she also called “power over,” and the latter, which she called “power with.”

Her theories marked a distinct break with the prevailing management theories of her time, namely Frederick Taylor’s principles of scientific management which centered individualism, hierarchy, and large power distances between employees and managers. By contrast, Mary Parker Follett advocated for “communitarian democracy” within organizations, and she emphasized the importance of conflict resolution in human relationships and learning through partnership and coordination. As she said, “coercive power is the curse of the universe; coactive power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul” (Follett, 1924:xii).

…To Practice

Berkeley Lab, the birthplace and home of team science, is deeply oriented towards promoting collaboration and sharing co-active power. And yet, our institution still exists within broader structures and systems that teach each of us, from a very early age, to exercise coercion/power over others. When we examine ourselves and our interactions more closely, we recognize this tendency not only at work, but in our friendships, our family relationships, our exchanges with strangers.

So how do we increase our awareness of when we are exercising “power over” vs. “power with”? How do we learn to better share power than wield it?

Here are two resources that can help you generate practical answers to these central questions:

  1. Self Development: Dr. Brené Brown’s ‘Power Over’ vs. ‘Power With’ Awareness-Building PDF - Use this document as a personal diagnostic tool: Where do you recognize each form of leadership around you? Pay special attention to row #3 and where you notice your own instincts “to be right” in different challenging interpersonal situations.

  2. Team Development: The Ready’s Model for Participatory Governance Meetings using the Integrative Decision-Making (IDM) Process - This post from the organizational design firm The Ready outlines ways in which some teams and organizations put the idea of ‘co-active power’ into practice. How is structured participatory governance, like the IDM process described, already a part of your team’s or the Lab’s culture? How is it not? Since experimentation and learning happen in incremental steps, what small future opportunities may there be to apply this practice?


Here is your monthly dose of the latest ideas and research from the fields of learning, management, and behavioral science. Take 15-30 minutes individually or with your team to read and discuss the following article, using the questions below to guide your discussion.

Poorly Run Labs Are A Threat to Behavioral Science But Democratic Principles Offer a Way Forward (Behavioral Scientist, March 2021)

Reflection Questions to Consider:

  • This article explicitly names dynamics within the field of behavioral science and in academia, summarized by the pull quote below. What are your reactions to this statement? What stands out to you from this article?

    “Expanding democracy…does not mean putting every decision to a majority vote. Rather, it means giving every person working in the social and behavioral sciences the power to exercise meaningful control over their circumstances and be part of decisions that affect them.” 
  • Regardless of whether you work in Operations, in Science & Engineering, or in the Directorate, how might the subject of this article be relevant to you and how you work? To your team and how they work?

  • What democratic principles or practices (note: they may not be explicit and you may not even call them ‘democratic’) currently exist on your team? Where are opportunities to introduce or amplify them?



Equity Reset: This is a lab-wide program that enables employees to allocate time and attention -- two of our most precious resources -- on a recurring basis to anti-racism learning and practice within our teams, divisions, areas, and beyond. The program consists of two components: a self-guided curriculum coupled with [optional, yet highly encouraged] community learning forums (“First Fridays”) on the first Friday of each month. Join us.

Sign Up for May 7th First Friday

Virtual Facilitation 101: Knowing how to facilitate virtual meetings and events that are dynamic and meaningful is an essential skill, especially in the context of hybrid work. To better prepare you to meet this ongoing need, L&OD is partnering with a preferred vendor, Scaling Intimacy, to offer 2-hour workshops to divisions and areas looking to develop staff around effective virtual meeting facilitation practices and team engagement tactics to build greater trust, foster collaboration, and enhance communication. Each workshop is $4500 (covered by the requesting division’s PID) and can accommodate up to 50 participants; timing will be determined based on vendor and divisional availability.

Request Virtual Facilitation 101


The General Fault in our Fault Lines (Nature, April 22, 2021)

Less is more: Why our brains struggle to subtract (Nature, April 7, 2021)

Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists (New York Times, April 9, 2021)

Stranger Danger: An Economist’s Guide to Overcoming Distrust (NPR, April 6, 2021)