I’m on a bit of an Adam Grant kick lately. Another topic he has discussed is when we apply negative forces to motivate others to comply with our way of thinking. He identifies several of these motivation tactics, and why they don’t work:

  • Scare tactics
  • Withholding love
  • Telling me it’s for my own good
  • Trying to make it seem like it was my idea
  • Yelling
  • Demeaning
  • Withholding support
  • Lecturing
  • Manipulation
  • Not listening to what I have to say
  • Dismissing my feelings
  • Dismissing my ideas
  • Belittling me
  • Withholding my respect
  • Passive aggressiveness
  • Shaming

One problem with using negative motivation tactics is that we are likely to get compliance but not “conversion,” meaning they will do what we say until we are gone. They are only doing it because they feel compelled, not because they agree it’s a good thing or something they would promote. They are caving to pressure to conform. It’s a superficial agreement. It may still not be easy for them to say no, but eventually, they will realize that they’ve been pushed into something they didn’t want. Ultimately, they will resent that. They may even want to exact revenge. Their feelings about what happened, and toward the person or group who used these tactics, will not be positive.

When we use threats or attempt to create fear in others, that only works until/unless they overcome that fear or see that the threat didn’t happen. For example, a parent who says “Wait until your father gets home!” is relying on the idea that the absent father is going to exact some sort of punishment that the child wants to avoid. If the father does not, this is an empty threat. The other parent’s authority is reduced because the thing they claimed would happen did not. I’m also not advocating making good on threats! If you have to employ a punishment to change behavior, then the thing you wanted the person to do was insufficiently compelling absent physically forcing them to do it. It’s still a weak reason to do the thing. Kids who are physically bullied by parents often find that once they have an adult body, they can turn the tables and protect themselves from this physical intimidation. They are no longer subject to physical force of will. This is one of the reasons that this scripture, often trotted out, but seldom adhered to, is so powerful:

39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the anature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little bauthority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise cunrighteous dominion.

40 Hence many are called, but afew are chosen.

41 No apower or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the bpriesthood, only by cpersuasion, by dlong-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

42 By akindness, and pure bknowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the csoul without dhypocrisy, and without eguile

Doctrine & Covenants 121: 39-43

When I was growing up, there was a family who converted to the Church. We were a close-knit group of kids in our branch that spanned six different high schools. Their son Jim was my age, and we all quickly became good friends with him, and he was part of all of our social activities. My friends and I usually drove to nearby Lancaster to go to a dance club on the weekends, and when we were meeting up by the Soldiers and Sailors monument, we ran into Jim. We were all excited to see him since it was unusual to run into church friends in public. We crossed the street to say hello, and while he seemed happy to see us, he was also nervously looking down the street. He quickly explained that his parents had left the Church and forbidden him to have any contact with any of us again. It had happened so recently that none of us even knew they had quit coming to church. We were sad to lose our friend, but also felt bad that his parents had cut ties so completely. Why would they do that?

It’s not like we didn’t know other people who had left the Church in a cloud of bitterness. We had even seen someone get up at Church and renounce its teaching over the pulpit in a fast and testimony meeting. It was not uncommon in our regional area to have new converts suddenly turn cold and never show up again at church. But it always hurt when it happened. And this was at least a decade before the Church’s anti-LGBT push, and its more overt politicization. Regardless of the reason, many people who leave the Church are often angry about it.

If, as a parent, when your children reach adulthood, they suddenly cut ties with you and want nothing to do with you, this should give you pause. Even if it’s not all of your children, even if it’s just one child. Exit stories from a church (which is far more voluntary than a family) should also give us pause. Just like a company should pay attention to why employees leave, so should all of us. Why were they in? What changed their mind? If they leave and feel somewhat neutral about their experience, that’s one thing. If they leave and are angry about it or seek to take down the organization, this isn’t a reason to dismiss them, but a reason to listen and find out why.

Were the types of tactics identified above by Adam Grant used to keep them in the Church? By whom? Did the Church as an institution use or approve these tactics? Did members? Or did the person’s family do so? Was this manipulation and bullying ignored and enabled or preached against?

Toxic environments are revealed in exit interviews with those that left. While these apply to the workplace, they also apply to other organizations (and even families):

1. Toxicity: people are treated like dirt

2. Mediocrity: low standards

3. Bureaucracy: all rules, no risks

4. Anarchy: pure chaos

Adam Grant

Of course these tactics don’t always result in someone leaving the Church. Sometimes, they feel like a natural, acceptable part of life, possibly particularly true if one’s home life mirrors this negative approach. There was a recent ex-Mo Twitter discussion about the exlusivity of the temple sealing, and that it creates a lot of angst and negative feelings toward the Church when family members are barred from witnessing their loved one’s marriage ceremony because they either aren’t members, are children, or do not have a temple recommend. The Church’s policy was substantially improved when it was changed to allow a civil ceremony for public participation and didn’t punish the couple with a year-long waiting period thereafter to complete the temple sealing. However, many couples continue to bar unendowed family members from weddings. That’s at least their choice now, although it will probably result in some hurt feelings.

This policy (and its slight shift) is an example of a relaxing of a punitive policy designed to motivate behavior. It specifically motivated many parents who didn’t have a temple recommend to pay up so they could get one, for example. I doubt it motivated any non-members to join, but it did create some distance between members and non-members within families, marginalizing the influence of the non-members on the members who had excluded them.

In general, whenever something was in the temple recommend process and no longer is, it’s evidence of reducing negative motivation. However, most of my adult life I’ve seen the expansion of negative motivation: adding requirements to the temple recommend interview, making a temple recommend a requirement for certain callings, and ratcheting up the ecclesiastical interview process at BYU, to name a few.

  • What do you think the Church can learn from exit narratives? Has it learned some of these lessons? Can you give examples of changes made?
  • Have you seen these types of negative motivation tactics? What was the result?
  • Have you used these tactics? In what context?
  • Do you see the Church becoming more or less reliant on negative motivation?