By Michael J. Stevens
I HAVE BEEN teaching higher education courses in organizational behavior, leadership, and group psychology for nearly 20 years, and the topic of conflict resolution has been a common theme in most classes I teach. As a way of introducing the topic, I often use a self-assessment exercise called the “Behavior Description Questionnaire” (or BDQ),1 which allows students to determine their preferred conflict resolution style2 (competing, compromising, collaborating, avoiding, or accommodating, see Figure 1). I then use this information as a platform for class discussion and introspective analysis. Over the years, I’ve taught at universities in the Midwest and the border regions of Texas, and have developed a general sense for how most students in those areas of the U.S. will typically score on the five styles, with collaborating and compromising being the most prevalent, and avoiding being the least common (see row one in Table 1 below).
In 2008, personal and professional circumstances brought me to Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. As I began to teach my usual rotation of courses using the BDQ, I noticed a striking trend with my students along the Wasatch Front—occurring with undergraduate and graduate (MBA) students, and with males and females. The preference for the avoidance style of conflict resolution was surfacing at a significantly higher rate than I had seen in the Midwest and Texas.
The first time this trend appeared, I was inclined to dismiss it as a mere statistical anomaly—an outlier unique to just one class. However, by the third semester, the pattern was clear and unmistakable. There was something different about this student body. So I began to systematically collect additional empirical data that would allow me to confirm and explore what leads my Utah students to prefer the avoidance style.
Descriptively speaking, the difference in the avoidance style was quite simple and straightforward to confirm, as can be seen by comparing rows 1 and 2 of Table 1. While the average avoidance scores for my comparison student samples from the Midwest and Texas was 4.0 (out of possible scores ranging from 0 to 12), the observed average score for my Weber State University students was 7.5.
Uncovering the potential factors behind these scores required some additional demographic data. I started asking students to include the following information with the BDQ test: (1) Whether they were born and raised along the Wasatch Front or relocated there later in life; (2) Whether they were raised in a strong religious environment (and if so, in which faith tradition); (3) Whether they would currently describe themselves as an actively participating member of a church or religious community (and if so, which one); and (4) Gender.
This additional data allowed me to separate out both religion and Wasatch Front regional influences on my students’ preferred conflict resolution styles. When this data was taken into account, the passive-aggressive avoidance scores showed meaningful changes. Specifically, when Weber State students were separated based on whether they had been raised in Utah or relocated later in life, the avoidance score went down to 5.5 for non-Utah natives, and increased to 8.3 for those who reported being originally from the Wasatch Front area (see rows 3 and 4 of Table 1). When Weber State students were further separated based on whether they self-reported as belonging to the LDS Church versus “other” (due to limited sample sizes, all non-LDS students were combined into a single group called “other”), the avoidance score went down to 5.6 for non-LDS students, and increased to 8.7 for LDS students. Finally, when the category of growing up in Utah was combined with being raised LDS, the avoidance score increased to 9.1, which is more than two standard deviations higher than the average scores of my comparison groups from the Midwest and Texas (compare rows 5, 6, and 7 in Table 1). In other words, the Mormon students who grew up along the Wasatch Front overwhelmingly trend toward passive-aggression in their response to conflict resolution.
Passive-aggression is the least common response option to conflict among the U.S. population at large and is typically viewed as an inadequate and unconstructive strategy (at least over the long term). It is generally used by those who would prefer that the conflict simply go away. One is passive in that one is unassertive in pursuing a resolution that addresses one’s own interests and concerns, while simultaneously being aggressive—or better stated, while simultaneously being uninterested in, dismissive, or contemptuous of the needs or concerns of the other (see Figure 1).
In its milder forms, passive-aggression will manifest itself merely as polite and innocuous attempts to steer clear of uncomfortable topics or encounters with others. However, in its more insidious forms, passive-aggression can rise to a level of interpersonal hostility and contempt that embodies a “whatever” response to the views and opinions of others. In this way, the passive-aggression label can be misleading; a more accurate description would be passive-hostility or passive-contempt.
A passive-aggressive person will generally deploy such behavioral tactics as: keeping one’s distance and remaining silent or aloof; hiding one’s true thoughts, feelings, or emotions; suppressing, setting aside, or ignoring issues that otherwise should be addressed; postponing or ignoring decisions; resisting change and otherwise championing the status quo; citing rules, policies, procedures, or higher authority as both a defensive and offensive tactic; and providing little meaningful or worthwhile feedback.
Sources of this Trend
The presence of significantly elevated levels of passive-aggression among the LDS population born and raised along the Wasatch Front deserves some analysis. Where did it come from? What fosters it? Is there a way to remediate it? In an attempt to answer these questions, I present the following three working hypotheses as possible explanations that would account for high levels of passive-aggression among Latter-day Saints.
First, I often observe that mainstream LDS Church members along the Wasatch Front have a difficult time confronting any form of disagreement, even when they are clearly uncomfortable or unhappy with what’s being discussed or decided. It’s as if they were conflating all forms of disagreement or conflict with contention. This would be consistent with an overly simplistic reading of 3 Nephi 11:29:
For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
If all conflict is viewed as the functional equivalent of having the “spirit of contention,” what options are left to a person who disagrees, or sees things differently, or who has goals and interests different from the rest of the community? How can one raise objections or question and challenge others, or raise unpleasant topics, if doing so is tantamount to being in league with Beelzebub? If one’s view of all conflict is that it must be avoided so as to avoid contention, then there is no direct, healthy, constructive strategy available for resolving conflicts and disagreements.
However, 2 Nephi 2:11, which states that there must be “an opposition in all things,” provides important nuance when brought into conversation with 3 Nephi 11:29. Apparently there is room for conflict, but how to handle it well is a question that seems to be mostly unexplored within the LDS community.
A second possible source for the elevated rates of passive-aggression among Latter-day Saints is its strong culture of obedience and submission. A simple search of general conference talks for the past decade shows obedience to be a constant and recurring theme. For example, search queries at www.lds.org for variations of “obey/obedience,” and “submit/submission” returned over 500 hits in general conference talks since 2002, and Mosiah 3:19 (which encourages the reader to be “submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things”) was quoted at least once in 17 of the preceding 20 general conferences—and more typically by members of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
While the scriptures clearly teach that Jesus was an example of submission to the Father in all things, it is important to recognize that submission can come in a variety of forms—and not all of its possible forms are created equal. For example, there is submission that flows from the unrighteous dominion of others, which can result in ungodly submission. On the other hand, there is submission that flows from the voluntary, authentic and willful act of choosing a better path. In the case of Jesus, his submission to the Father’s will involved an unwavering and unyielding commitment to embrace charity, compassion, and social justice as the foundational ideals of those claiming to be God’s people. In this sense, Jesus submitted freely and with uncompromising strength to the wisdom of God’s path—a path that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing views, attitudes, and customs of the Mediterranean culture of Jesus’ day: a culture that embraced violence, hierarchy, intimidation, oppression, and male-dominated authoritarianism as the primary means for resolving conflict and advancing one’s interests.3
This contrast between choosing compassion over violence was clearly the basis for Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek.” Jesus was not advocating that we be empty and opinionless disciples, capable only of being acted upon. He was not calling us to invite abusive and demeaning treatment and wear it as a badge of godliness (a la Dora the Doormat). Rather, he was calling his disciples to stop the proliferation of violence by refusing to respond to others in kind, and by refusing to perpetuate the never-ending cycles of hostility, violence, abuse, and contempt.
Another way of framing the LDS obedience and submission culture is embodied in the Pharisaical philosophy, which emphasizes rule-based obedience. The Pharisees believed that by observing as best they could all of the ritual purity rules in the Law of Moses (that is, by keeping kosher) God would be so impressed with their voluntary obedience that he would have to send the Messiah.4
Modern Mormonism’s difficulty dealing with any response other than Pharisaical compliance and submission can be seen clearly in the recent furor engendered by the Wear Pants to Church Day on 16 December 2012. This simple act of solidarity encouraging women to wear pants to Sunday church meetings violated no formal LDS Church rule or policy, but simply deviated from strongly held social norms. Nevertheless, it incited vitriolic censure—including death threats—from many orthodox members of the mainstream LDS community.5
If we consider modern LDS culture to be an anthropologically “tight” culture (that is, one in which there are many strong norms proscribing behavior and conduct, along with a low tolerance for deviance from those norms),6 then it’s easy to see how norms favoring conflict avoidance are combined with very strong social pressures against the expression of contrary opinions, views, or preferences. To state such differences openly means that one should anticipate the strong sanctions and social ostracism that will inevitably follow. The message of an obedience and submission culture is clear: No Devil’s Advocates allowed! Quit asking questions and challenging things—just nod your head and say “yes.”
And finally, the third possible source for the elevated passive-aggression among the LDS can be found in the culture’s deference to Church leaders. The idea of rendering deference to leaders is aptly captured by the concept of “high power distance.” This term originates in cross-cultural psychology and refers to the size of the gap between people who have high status, power, and authority within the culture, and those who have low status.7 High power distance cultures require high levels of deference to people in positions of power, often translating into restricted rights for the average person to question or challenge the status quo or the decisions made by high-status persons.
To observe Mormonism’s high power distance tendencies, one need only attend any LDS church meeting where a sustaining vote is called. Rather than serving as a referendum by members on the actions and decisions of church leaders, such votes function as little more than member loyalty tests. In all cases, uniform deference is clearly expected, and when such deference is not given—such as through the act of casting a dissenting vote—the non-acquiescing members are invariably brought before the very church leaders who held the vote. It is not the leader and his actions that must be justified to the member; rather, it is the non-deferential church member who must provide explanation for his or her decision to cast an opposing vote.
Consequences and Implications
What does it matter if the LDS community has an extraordinarily elevated avoidance approach to conflict? Doesn’t this simply mean that Mormons are just nicer and more polite to each other? What could possibly be the downside of following the advice proffered in the highly prescient Book of Mormon musical that we just “Turn it off, like a light switch! Just go click! It’s a cool little Mormon trick! We do it all the time.”
While your mom’s advice (“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”) may have worked on a limited, short-term basis on the playground, research on the long-term mental health and well-being of adults8 has shown that in real life, this approach is more likely to lead to unhealthy response patterns and behaviors. These may include: sulking; convenient forgetfulness; excuse making; obstructionism and intentional acts of inefficiency; artificial and superficially disingenuous relationships; long-term feelings of alienation and resentment that can build to the point of physically and psychologically violent eruptions (to wit: church basketbrawl, Utah road rage, and the anonymous vitriol unleashed in online chat forums); perpetuation of victimization and abuse—even with the complicity of the abused; self-reinforcing downward cycles of co-dependency between those who impose solutions and those upon whom solutions are imposed; abdication of personal responsibility; complacency and stagnation of personal growth, development, and maturation; festering of unresolved conflicts; manipulation of bureaucratic rules and policies (e.g., “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission”); and the stifling of creative and innovative solutions to problems.9
Given the costs, how can we move toward more constructive approaches for resolving conflicts and disagreements? First, we need to acknowledge the reality of our situation. The presence of high levels of passive-aggression among Latter-day Saints is an empirically observable and objectively measurable phenomenon. The influences of this aspect of LDS culture works on us like the tide—repeatedly and unremittingly, year after year after year, in subtle and subconscious ways, making it difficult to ever spontaneously develop healthy coping skills for managing conflict and disagreements. It also undermines our capacity to use power ethically when we have it at our disposal, or to respond effectively to abuses of power when we are in a subordinate position. I would argue that few people who are raised Mormon are provided with good examples of what healthy disagreement and conflict management looks like or with methods of how to foster constructive, collaborative problem-solving and negotiation. Failure to see this phenomenon and to acknowledge its presence among us means we can have little hope of remedy. As virtually all 12-step self-help programs emphasize, recognizing the problem is always the first step toward recovery and healing.
Second, we need to be aware of the array of response options available to us (see Figure 1). Not only do we need models showing us how to respond constructively to conflict, but also more systematic and deliberate strategies for developing the skills, techniques, and emotional intelligence necessary to make healthier approaches a more natural part of our responses. If we think our only options are either competition or passive-aggression, then more constructive approaches (like collaboration) will be impossibly beyond our reach. Left to our own devices, few of us will stumble upon, much less master, collaborative skills and techniques.
Many of us can easily see the value in a collaborative approach when it’s described to us. However, seeing doesn’t necessarily lead to doing—especially in the case of conflict resolution. We need time, practice, and good facilitation. And there is much to learn: how to accurately size up the conflict resolution behaviors that are presenting themselves in a given situation, how to organize our interactions for a constructive response, how to foster a collaborative problem-solving and decision-making environment, how to communicate honestly yet respectfully, how to genuinely address the needs and concerns of others, and how to avoid employing manipulative rewards and incentives to get what we want. And we need to be able to do all this while maintaining our own integrity and objectives precisely when we are in the pitch of emotional distress and the tumult of the conflict itself.
Learning how to resolve conflict effectively is a lot like learning to play baseball. Reading and study can help lay a useful foundation, but real mastery comes only through active practice, usually under the guidance of a skilled facilitator or coach. The good news is that such learning and instruction is possible, but typically require proper modeling and one-on-one coaching, along with extensive, detailed, and meaningful feedback—often referred to as social learning feedback loops. However, if formal programs are unavailable, we can nevertheless seek out remedies and information to educate ourselves through many available resources, such as Bolton, Bradberry & Greaves, Goleman, Fisher, Ury & Patton and the like.10
Finally, we need to start creating healthier approaches to managing conflict and disagreements in our culture. For the most part, LDS culture is subject to the law of gravity—it flows from the top down. This happens because, with or without knowing it, our leaders delineate the values, norms, and mental models we adhere to as they establish budgets and otherwise deploy community resources; set rules, policies and procedures; champion and proscribe the details of certain rituals over others; hold up particular stories as being either worthy of emulation or cautionary tales; decide which behaviors are rewarded and which are punished within the community; and decide which rules and norms will be embraced and reinforced as part of the “unwritten order of things.” If you doubt the scope and influence of Church leaders to shape all aspects of modern Mormon culture, just think of what the net effect would be if general authorities started delivering all general conference talks wearing spritely colored polo shirts and khaki slacks. We must let Church leaders know that we are watching them in this regard, and that we will hold them accountable for the ways in which they shape LDS culture and tradition.
While I acknowledge the tight control Church leaders have over LDS norms and culture, there are still ways in which rank-and-file members can personally and collectively promote healthy cultural change, especially when the issues are matters of convention and policy, rather than fundamental gospel principles.
This can be done on an individual level as opportunities present themselves, but it can also be done in a concerted and collective way through organized grassroots campaigns. Two recent examples are the Wear Pants to Church event,11 and the What Women Know online statements and petitions.12
We should also look for respectful ways to challenge the validity of the myriad elements constituting our culture’s “unwritten order of things” such as the practice of addressing Church leaders by office or priesthood title, or the assumption that being an ordained priesthood holder is necessary for a given Church calling or responsibility. For example, the positions of ward clerk and Sunday School president do not require that one hold the priesthood, yet, without exception, males are called to fill them. And if you really want to turn up the introspective heat, consider this: If women and nonpriesthood-holding men and children are allowed to pass the sacrament trays up and down the pews to each other, why could we not have the 12–18-year-old young women of the Church join the young men in passing the sacrament trays up and down the aisles between the pews? Why is it that non-priesthood bearers are allowed to pass the sacrament trays while seated, but not while standing? Though the first reaction to such a question might range from dismissiveness to outright contempt—such as what we saw in many responses to the recent Wear Pants to Church event—I would predict that many mainstream Church members will be moved to greater compassion by such questions. And if such questions are asked by enough of us with enough frequency, the institution will eventually have to respond.
Another thing we can do at the grassroots level is to muster the courage to reclaim the Law of Common Consent by exercising our right to vote “no” when we feel moved by the Spirit and/or common sense to do so. For example, we can decide that as a matter of principle and conscience, any time a male’s name is put forward to fill a calling for which women are by policy excluded, we should seriously consider registering an opposing vote. There is no formal Church rule or policy against exercising our franchise as members to cast an oppositional vote; we simply aren’t used to it. And after the meeting, when we are inevitably taken aside by church leaders and asked to explain our dissenting vote, we can share our reservations about the practice of staffing nonpriesthood callings only with males.
One final change to our culture that should be given serious consideration at the institutional level is the creation of formal mechanisms and safe spaces for questioning and dissent. Ideally, instead of just protecting dissenters within our culture, we should welcome them as essential agents for producing health-inducing cultural antibodies. Creating a safe space for dissent and debate within the LDS Church will likely do more than anything else to produce a vigorous immune system that can help address the challenges facing us.
Entities such as Sunstone, Dialogue, Mormon Stories, the bloggernacle, and others have claimed this space to raise questions and engage in open discussions—even dissent. In theory, though, a safe space for dissent could be an official church calling. This is actually something the Catholic Church figured out centuries ago when it created the official Vatican position known in common vernacular as Advocatus Diaboli, or the “Devil’s Advocate.” This office was held by a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities. His assigned duty was to argue against the canonization of candidates put forward for sainthood. They were required to take a suspicious view of all presented evidence, and consider every conceivable argument for why a purported miracle might actually be fraudulent—all with the aim of showing that a candidate is thus undeserving of sainthood.13
However, a genuinely beneficial devil’s advocate is a rarity. Many of us have likely had firsthand experiences with individuals who loudly proclaim themselves to be a devil’s advocate, but whether they can perform this role in a healthy and constructive manner is debatable. Many of them simply seem to enjoy pushing people’s buttons. The goal of a constructive devil’s advocate is to engage with others and wrestle with the evidence in such a way as to promote the best possible decisions, insights, conclusions, and outcomes. A good devil’s advocate is able to intuit when enough challenging and questioning has been done and when decisions need to be made so that progress and growth may occur. A good devil’s advocate is capable of discerning between the dissent that edifies and the dissent that ravages. When this role is carried out effectively, the consequence is that insights and knowledge normally hidden from human view can come to light, showing that the glory of God is indeed intelligence. This was clearly understood when the Catholic Church settled on its official name for this role: though the lay term for this role is Devil’s Advocate, the official title is Promotor Fidei, or “Promoter of the Faith.”
AS WE SEEK to develop more constructive approaches to conflict resolution, we must constantly remind ourselves that our goal is to bring about healthy change in ourselves and in Church policies and practices, not to provoke the antagonism, resentment, or frustration of our leaders. Like the rest of us, our leaders are mortals—arms of flesh. They err, as do we all. Their capacity for sound decision making, for resolving conflict, and for accessing the divine is no different and no greater than it is for the rest of us. Although our leaders may “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2), we must understand that an essential part of sustaining our church leaders is finding the courage to point out when all is not well in Zion. The goal must be to find empathy and compassion in our assessments as we wrestle against the unhealthy aspects of ourselves and our culture.
We must also recognize that the changes we desire will not likely happen overnight. As we see in the business world, changing an organization’s culture is invariably a long and vexing process. Changing a community’s traditions and one’s own personal habits require that we be prepared for the long game. We must be prepared for many unsatisfactory and inept answers along the way—and even no answer at times. We should be prepared to have our heartfelt questions hijacked in a way that not only ignores the original question but focuses instead on our worthiness or loyalty to the Church. We should be prepared to cultivate reserves of patience and compassion for Church leaders who are simply in over their heads but nevertheless have good hearts and intentions. And we should even be prepared to find forgiveness for arrogant and prideful Church leaders who honestly believe that their actions are the de facto will of God.
If we are not actively working to resolve the problem, we are passively allowing it to persist—much to our spiritual peril. And of course, as we question and advocate, we must do so in a constructive and collaborative manner. To do so with hostility and contempt would be to act with the spirit of contention. But to just avoid the whole mess would be nothing less than passive-aggression on our part.
1. Judith R. Gordon, A Diagnostic Approach to Organizational Behavior (3rd ed.) (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991).
2. Kenneth W. Thomas, “Conflict and Negotiation Processes in Organizations,” in Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2nd ed., vol. 3, edited by Marvin D. Dunnette (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1992), 651–717.
3. Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach Us about Jesus’s Birth (New York: Harper-Collins, 2007).
4. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (New York: Harper-Collins, 1994).
5. Charlotte Cowles, “Mormon Women Get Death Threats for Wearing Pants,” New York Magazine, http://nymag.com/thecut/2012/12/mormon-women-get-death-threats-for-wearing-pants.html (accessed 17 January 2013). Sabrina Franks, “Threats Shut Down Facebook Event,” The Student Review, http://thestudentreview.org/threats-shut-down-facebook-event (accessed 17 January 2013). Timothy Pratt, “Mormon Women Set Out to Take a Stand, in Pants,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/us/19mormon.html (retrieved 17 January 2013).
6. Michele J. Gelfand, et al., “Differences between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study,” Science 332 (6033), 1100-1104.
7. Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (3rd ed.) (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010).
8. Martin Kantor, Passive Aggression: A Guide for the Therapist, the Patient and the Victim (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002).
9. Tim Murphy and Lorriann Hoff Oberlin, Overcoming Passive Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2005). Theodore Millon, et al., Personality Disorders in Modern Life (San Francisco: Wiley, 2004). Scott Wetzler, Living with the Passive–Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression from the Bedroom to the Boardroom (New York: Touchstone Publishing, 1993). Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (New York: Bantam, 2006). George Simon, In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People (Little Rock, AR: Parkhurst Brothers, 2010). Neil Warner, Guerrilla Tactics against Passive Aggression in the Work Place (Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Creative Conflict Resolutions, 2011).
10. Robert Bolton, People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others and Resolve Conflicts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979). Travis Bradberry & Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (San Diego: TalentSmart, 2009). Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, & Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (New York: Penguin Books, 2011).
11. “Wear Pants to Church Day” Facebook Event Page, www.facebook.com/WearPantsToChurchDay (accessed 17 January 2013).
12. What Women Know website, http://whatwomenknow.org/ (accessed 17 January 2013).
13. The Devil’s Advocate position was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983.