Threats, Promises, and Coalitions: A Study of Compliance and Retaliation in a Simulated Organizational Setting1


  • Stuart C. Freedman

    1. University of Lowell
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    • 2

      Requests for reprints should be sent to Dr. Stuart C. Freedman, Department of Management, University of Lowell, 1 University Ave., Lowell, MA 01854.

  • 1

    Appreciation is extended to Samuel B. Bacharach, Edward J. Lawler, and Susan D. Bell for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this study.


This research sought to examine the effects of threats and promises on compliance and the formation of subordinate coalitions in a simulated employeremployee conflict situation. It also sought to determine some of the motives underlying coalition decisions-tangible and intangible-and the conditions under which each of these possible motive types would be salient. Coalition motives were examined by manipulating the consequences for coalition members following their use of coalition power (presence vs. absence of monetary gain). A control condition was present in which no such power was available.

Ninety male undergraduate business students were randomly assigned to one of six experimental conditions in a 3 × 2 factorial design. Three Ss engaged in a modified bilateral monopoly bargaining task in which two of them (the “employees”) believed they were exchanging a series of offers and counteroffers with the third (the “employer”) over a hypothetical wage increase for a maximum of eight rounds. Ss were told they would earn a sum of money proportional to the effectiveness of their bargaining. In actuality, all Ss were assigned the employee role and all employer “offers” were pre-programmed. On round six, the Ss were “sent” either a threat or promise message by the employer demanding that they accept his round five offer. Compliance-noncompliance was defined as employee acceptance-rejection of this demand, respectively. In addition to compliance behavior, S s in coalition conditions had the power to form an alliance with the other employee against the employer after the latter used his threat or promise power. Coalitions could confiscate up to 25% of the employer's earnings and, depending on experimental condition, could either keep or not keep any money their coalition acquired.

It was hypothesized that threateners would elicit less compliance, and be responded to with more, and more severe subordinate coalitions than would promisers. It was further assumed that there would be less compliance when subordinates had coalition power, and that the effect of monetary reward on the likelihood of coalition formation would be contingent on the type of power (threats vs. promises) the employer used. Specifically, it was assumed that a majority of S s in the Threat condition who had this power would form coalitions against the employer regardless of whether or not they realized any tangible gain for doing so. In the promise condition, however, it was expected that coalition decisions would be based primarily on whether Ss stood to gain monetarily. The hypotheses were supported.

These results were discussed in terms of the impact of power acquisition as a variable mediating perception and compliance behavior, and in terms of the role of economic vs. retaliatory motives as factors underlying subordinate coalition decisions. Some of the conditions which influence the relative salience of these two coalition motives were proposed, and the organizational implications of these findings were suggested.