The Problem with Authority

HawkgrrrlAnti-Mormon, apologetics, Asides, books, church, civil disobedience, Culture, curiosity, diversity, doubt, fear, geography, international, LDS, Leaders, mormon, Mormon, Mormons, prophets, questioning, religion, service, surviving, theology, thought, Utah 35 Comments

Mormons are sometimes criticized for their unquestioning obedience to authority.  Statements like “When the prophet has spoken, the thinking is done,” and the Primary song “Follow the prophet” come to mind as well as the belief that even if leaders are mistaken, we should follow them.  Do Mormons have an unhealthy respect for authority?

In his new book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shares some interesting and scary information that correlate plane crashes with a cultural respect for authority. He shares the story of a specific plane crash on Korean Air in which an analysis of the dialogue as recorded on the “black box” clearly shows (to someone who understands the language and what its built in deferential markers mean) that at least 2 of the crew members knew they were off course and in danger of crashing, but would not directly tell the pilot out of respect for his authority.  Because the pilot was exhausted and stressed out, he failed to notice their hints and instead flew the plane into the side of a mountain in foggy conditions, killing over 100 passengers & crew.

This problem is related to Power-Distance Index, or the cultural expectation of respect for hierarchy.  The PDI differs greatly from culture to culture and is ingrained into that culture, insinuated in both language & customs.  Countries with high PDI had the following characteristics:

  • High reliance on leaders for decision-making. Leaders are expected to be decisive, their decisions are followed without question; leaders are consulted for more routine decisions than in low PDI countries.
  • Lower expectations of non-leaders. Non-leaders are discouraged from expressing opinions or making decisions (er, “the thinking is done”).  They are subordinates in every sense of the word.
  • Restrictions on how subordinates are permitted to express their needs. In the highest PDI cultures, this is restricted to very indirect “hints,” which within the context of the culture are generally understood by leaders as a way for the leader to retain authority but save face.  However, this structure relies heavily on leaders’ ability and willingness to listen and respond to these hints.
  • Fear of backlash. In very high PDI countries, subordinates were sometimes physically struck when they irritated their leaders or were too direct.  Fear and intimidation clearly impacted how willing subordinates were to speak up.
  • Strong reliance on rules & plans. These cultures discourage deviation from accepted procedures, even when circumstances clearly dictate that normal procedures will be ineffective.

Conversely, low PDI cultures are generally the opposite of the above:

  • Subordinate or employee-focused culture. Leaders tend to be apologetic about being leaders and ultra-sensitive to subordinates.  This is the basis for the concept of “servant leadership.”  (Or as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker:  “With great power comes great responsibility.”)
  • Shared responsibility for communication.  In a low PDI culture, the speaker is expected to ensure understanding.  The receiver of the message is also expected to listen attentively.  In a high PDI culture, only leaders are considered responsible for the receiving of the message.  The speaker’s input is not considered necessary anyway.
  • Equality culture. Subordinates are valued as having unique roles or expertise that give them insight and make their input critical.  Their opinions are expected and weighed based on merit; there is a free exchange of ideas regardless of level.  Speaking up, even in disagreement with a superior may be rewarded in these cultures, even if done tactlessly or aggressively.
  • High innovation and creativity. These cultures are very willing to abandon established procedures and brainstorm new ideas when circumstances dictate.  They tend to be flexible and innovative.

Just to give you a taste, here’s how a few countries stacked up on PDI.  High PDI countries (with strong respect for authority):

  1. Brazil
  2. South Korea
  3. Morocco
  4. Mexico
  5. Philippines

Low PDI countries (note the commonality created by language):

  1. New Zealand
  2. Australia
  3. South Africa
  4. Ireland
  5. United States

So, based on these parameters, is Mormonism a high-PDI culture or a low-PDI culture or somewhere in between?  Does it vary by region or is it common across the entire religion, preserved in the language and customs and doctrines?  How much does it vary from person to person? What are the boundaries of respect for authority in Mormon culture (what would even the staunchest Saint refuse to do)?

Based on the above, I would have a hard time considering most Mormon culture to be high PDI (as I might have expected), yet there are some elements of both high and low PDI.  To some extent, this could be due to the fact that the concept of hierarchy is mixed:

  • Quorum Leadership.  There is an “oligarchy” in that we consider all the apostles to be “prophets” and their personalities differ greatly.  Yet all are viewed as being on the same “level.”  Some of them are high PDI individuals; others are low PDI.
  • Christ as the Head.  Ultimately, we consider Christ to be at the head of the church, and since our notion of Christ is something personal (everyone can have a relationship with their Savior), we have a “bat phone” to the man at the top.  That’s usually a low PDI indicator.  The fact that Christ is not physically on the earth further reduces PDI.  Everyone’s notion of Christ has somewhat equal creedence so long as it is not directly and clearly contradicted by doctrine.
  • Lay Clergy.  Positions are temporary, and we are all volunteers.  No one is being paid or truly promoted, and anyone could be called to serve in any capacity at any time.  There are instances of “unrighteous dominion” (high PDI), but there are also many committees and quorums making decisions at the lowest level possible (low PDI).  Again, there’s a lot of variation based on individuals in leadership having a high or low PDI personally.

In general, I would say that the church is mixed, with both high and low PDI elements, and that it varies more from individual to individual (meaning there is not necessarily a predominant culture).  What do you think?


Comments 35

  1. “He shares the story of a specific plane crash on Korean Air in which an analysis….” similar conclusions were reached in the Tenerife airport crash in ’77 but for the Dutch KLM crew who didn’t want to directly challenge the airline’s star pilot ‘Captain van Zanten’. I mention this in case someone out thinks that its an Asian culture thing only.

    1. “Do Mormons have an unhealthy respect for authority?” Yeap! especially when an apostles walks into a room. I think its because they think that the apostle can see your sins!!

  2. I think that places like Tonga, Samoa as well as the middle east have much higher PDI than a Brazil or The Phillipine, imo.

    With regards to the church, imho, it depends what ward you are in and its ethnic bias. In our quorum, when the tongan brother gives a class he will still address me as bishop (although I was released years ago) and a german brother here usually calls me ‘president’ still! But any anglo person doesn’t, they’ll stick to my current ‘brother’ tittle. And I know today that in general the church has higher PDI in Chile, Argentina and Paraguay than it does here in Australia/New Zealand.

    So, for me, the chuche’s PDI depends more on were it is located and what that country’s PDI is, since after all the church is made up by the members who already have a specific culture, which may change a bit when they join but I don’t think it disappears completely.

  3. In my Norwegian branch we address our branch president by his first name. When I first encountered this, I thought it was strange. Not sure whether it’s due to culture (Norwegian culture being probably very low PDI), the fact that it’s a small branch, or that he’s been branch president for about 10 years and counting.

    I’ve always been bothered by that quote from Dallin H. Oaks, that “(I)t’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.” I find it interesting, however, that this quote seems to indicate that yes, indeed, our criticisms are sometimes true. We’re just not supposed to point it out.

    I think we should pick our battles. I could criticize my RS president on the way she does certain things, I could be justified in my criticism, but does it really matter? I have to ask myself what’s at stake. I think that in most instances, we should just let it go, at least when it’s a petty matter or something that won’t have potentially disastrous consequences for a leader or the people they lead. However, there are times where what Church leaders say/do may have negative enough consequences that we should speak up.

  4. I think it is far to say it varies. But does the Church want to have a high PDI or a low one? Does it encourage behaviour that seeks to engender obedience and deference to authority? Further in those countries where it is high, would the Church’s influence make it higher or lower? If it could be argued that across cultures the Church increases PDI’s then its culture could be characterised as high PDI. Further, through the leadership hierarchy would this be high or low, i.e. those that are ‘rewarded’ with responsibility might be of a certain disposition.

    This kinda reminds of that Nibley essay where he discusses leaders and managers. I wonder if we don’t want complete deference but we hate radical leaders. Therefore, if we can’t have moderates then we would rather have high PDI’s.

  5. I think it’s important to contextualize Elder Oaks’ comment within his work that discusses criticism more broadly (see “The Lord’s Way”). He doesn’t say that we must keep our mouth shut at all times, in all things, in all places. He’s referring to the folks who go to the media, who spread gossip, who attempt to create a following for their cause. Granted, individual leaders probably feel differently about this, but Elder Oaks maintains that you might broach the issue tactfully and gently with the said leader.

  6. I think that given the claims of divine origin and influence that we profess for our Church, we have a high PDI. We are willing to trust that our leaders have a close working relationship (at least at the spiritual level) with God and Jesus and other heavenly messengers. So, we assume, in most cases, they are talking for God. After all, that is a specific definition of a Prophet, right?

    But, then again, at the local level, we have seen most of our leaders in “pre-leadership” roles and sometimes wonder how they got where they are. In most cases, we don’t have the same comparison with our General leadership. We again trust that they were chosen for the right reason.

    On the other hand, I find that church members can have a passive-aggressive nature to them where they act as though they follow, but in reality do not. They pick and chose how and what they will do and make excuses for why they don’t do some things or believe some things.

    Also, it is my observation that the Asian cultures have a very high PDI, almost exclusively and that Latin countries have a high relationship value, but not necessarily high PDI unless that strong relationship exists.

  7. Post

    Neal – “Also very interesting is how high I suspect Britain itself would rank on the high-PDI list.” Historically, Britain may have been much higher PDI (like when they were colonizing the world and the Queen had real power), but I’m not sure it’s that high now. It’s important to remember that there is a significant British counter-culture: it’s the birthplace of both punk rock and the Magna Carta.

    Faithful – “I’ve always been bothered by that quote from Dallin H. Oaks” Elder Oaks was a judge, perhaps the highest PDI profession in our country. As to criticism, I do think that in general, criticism does more harm to the person who harbors it than the person being criticized. Very few leaders are both bad and charismatic enough to cause entire populations of church members to leap off a cliff in lemming-like fashion.

    Rico – “But does the Church want to have a high PDI or a low one?” This is a great question, and not that easy to answer. At heart is another question – who is “the Church”? People usually think “the church” means the leaders, but in reality, there are far more members than leaders. I think the members set the culture, for good or bad. The members with high PDI focus on the things that reduce their responsibility and place the onus on those above them: priesthood authority, prophetic mantle, and obedience. Members with low PDI will focus more on personal spiritual growth, personal revelation, service (leaders as servants), and personal relationship with God. I think we’re hearing from both factions pretty consistently.

  8. When someone cannot write a letter to a general authority and have it be read by someone in his office (it is redirected to the person’s stake president), you know you are in a culture that values a high PDI. (BTW, I’ve never done this). Sure, the general authorities are busy people, but so are elected officials, and I have received letters back from their offices every time I’ve written them.

    It wasn’t always like this, but as the Church has grown, the top leadership has grown more distanced from the membership. At the same time, power/authority in action and in perception of the membership has probably increased substantially. I’m inclined to conclude based on information I’ve read over the years that in terms of PDI, the Church looks nothing like what Joseph Smith organized and envisioned.

    In parallel with what you’ve discussed in the post, Hawkgrrrl, we’ve also gone from a radically progressive organization (polygamy, law of consecration, authority from angels, new scripture, suffrage for women, universal priesthood (no paid clergy), individual access to personal revelation, reconception of heaven and earth life, etc.) to one of extreme conservatism (protect marriage as only between one man and one woman, capitalism and individualism as highest economic ideal, prophet’s word is law, don’t criticize leaders, nothing added to canon of scripture since section 138 (90 years ago; why aren’t official declarations sections?), fight against ERA & Prop. 8, etc.).

    Before it sounds like I’m criticizing the Church too much, I will say that I believe that a lot of good can and has come from high PDI organizations. Indeed, the efficiency of high PDI organizations is quite a bit higher than those with low PDI. But at what expense? I suppose we’ll never know.

  9. I thing that, in rhetoric and structurally, the Church is very high PDI, but “on the ground”, it is much less PDI in my experience. In general, my experience is that, at the grass roots in the US, the Church is fairly low PDI. That may be because the US as a whole is low PDI, and that culture affects the behavior of US Latter-day Saints.

  10. The members with high PDI focus on the things that reduce their responsibility and place the onus on those above them: priesthood authority, prophetic mantle, and obedience. Members with low PDI will focus more on personal spiritual growth, personal revelation, service (leaders as servants), and personal relationship with God. I think we’re hearing from both factions pretty consistently.

    Actually, from this very association (of what high PDI members would tend to focus on vs. what low PDI members would focus on), that would lead me to think that the high PDI faction “wins” out. So let’s say both are represented in consistent number (or let’s imagine that there are even more low PDI members?) The nature of the church organization (or perhaps, most organizations), would select for more high-PDI individuals, I would imagine. When things are peaceful, it might seem as if things are more balanced, but when things are pushed to the limit, I think it’s clearer that the church “defaults” on high PDI focuses. It’s easier to say in the church that members need to be “obedient” (or else they are prideful) than to say that members need to have a more personal relationship with God and heed personal revelation (or else they are…I don’t quite know an equivalent term that is commonly used)…the former seems like kosher church advice. The latter seems like the slippery slope out the door.

  11. Post

    AndrewS – “that would lead me to think that the high PDI faction “wins” out.” Maybe, but not necessarily. We’ve also had quite a bit of discussion here about soft power vs. hard power. Hard power is high PDI = authority, usually top down, requires compliance and obedience. Soft power is low PDI = persuasion, empowerment, communication, at least the illusion of equality, rights of the least are considered. While history is often written by the “hard power” types, it’s often re-written by the “soft powers.” For example, we all know of the military might of Rome, but it eventually splintered into a thousand pieces through soft power. Likewise, Rome oppressed the Christians, but through “soft power” Christianity became the state religion (then they used their hard power to enforce it . . .) There’s a poem by Sylvia Plath called Mushrooms that comes to mind:

  12. but even in your parenthetical, you undercut through whatever victory soft power could ever have had (e.g., Christianity became a tool of those who use hard power to be enforced).

    That seems to be the way of things in any case. Even if something begins soft…or is converted from within through soft power, hard power overcomes and wins out.

  13. Post

    Agreed that the human tendency is toward hard power. It’s a heckuva lot easier to enforce obedience than to grow human independence that might ultimately disagree with your authority. But that doesn’t make it enlightened.

  14. of course it doesn’t make it enlightened. But it need not be enlightened (even in organizations that claim to be enlightened and led by enlightened ideals — whether conservative *or* liberal, actually) to still hold sway.

    I mean, you can see hard power creep into even in so-called liberal or secular ideologies.

  15. Any strident dogma requires obedience to be effective. (“you must accept what we say, because we are right!”) I don’t know if I classify the church in that category. As an adult convert, I chose to join. Perhaps, for lifers, it is less of a choice, I don’t know. There are always people who “buck” the system simply because they can. In other cases, someone needs to do it because the system is inherently wrong.

  16. People feel pressure and the weight of authority differently than others – on both ends of the authority. That plays a HUGE role in how we each view this question.

  17. Recently my stake president informed us that he had been instructed by a member of the Seventy to discontinue a certain foreign language Sunday School class in our Stake. I wrote the Stake President a nine page, single-spaced letter, asking him to forward it to the Seventy who had issued the instructions, in which I explained at length why I thought his decision was effectively flying a jet plane into a mountainside. I was respectful but also spoke plainly and to the point. Less than two weeks later, the Stake Pres called and informed me that the Seventy had carefully read the letter and had rescinded his previous instructions. He also conveyed thanks for sending him the letter.

    This experience showed me that, thankfully, these Church leaders were receptive to someone telling them they were flying a plane into a mountainside. It strengthened my conviction in knowing that remaining silent when you see a problem is not love, and it is not loyalty. Sometimes love and loyalty compel us to warn that we are flying into a mountainside. Of course, the key is to do so in a manner that maximizes the likelihood that someone will want to listen to us and act on our warnings.

  18. #20 – “Of course, the key is to do so in a manner that maximizes the likelihood that someone will want to listen to us and act on our warnings.”

    Amen. Also, knowing it would have been sent to the SP anyway makes going to the SP and asking for it to be sent up the chain the smart thing to do. You could have bucked the system and sent it straight to the 70, but that would have risked alienating someone – so why do it?

    In sales, there is an adage, “The correct use of power is key.” This is a great example of the correct use of power.

  19. This is my favorite quote by Brigham Young and it pretty much sums up how I feel about this topic.

    “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.
    (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [1954], 135.)

    Is it wrong to question leaders? No.

  20. I agree that the Church has elements of high and low PDI. On balance, however, I think it is realtively high PDI. Quotes like Brigham Young’s in coment 22 are interesting, but I do not see those values really playing out in Mormon culture. The Church really does not foster a culture that values equality, innovation or creativity. Rather, I think there is a very high reliance upon rules, plans and what leaders say. I mean, “Correlation,” anyone? I think most members of the Church has learned to express theiir thoughts or “needs” in very cautious, indirect, pathologically polite ways if they want to be heard. This is, if anything, more true at the local level, where open disagreement with a Bishop or Stake President is highly suspect.

  21. On my mission our MP told us to follow our DLs’, ZLs’ and APs’ directions, even if we didn’t agree with them. As he put it, the Lord will not hold you accountable for obedience. Now I wonder…

    I think I’m probably high PDI. The Church always lists obedience as such a primary objective for this mortal gig. Also, I keep thinking of Edward G. Robinson in “The Ten Commandments” saying “Nyah! Where’s your messiah now, huh? Nyah!” right before God comes down and swats them.

    Also (and I apologize for the pickiness), it’s “credence,” not “creedence.” Unless, of course, you were talking about John Fogerty’s band.

  22. Teancum:

    I have a very hard time swallowing this “Church stifles intelligence” trope when my experience has been very much the opposite.

    Perhaps it’s different in singles wards; I see a greater willingness to grumble about a Branch President’s talk or to disagree with his judgment. I generally don’t agree with their assessment (I’m only getting half a conversation), but I haven’t see creativity suffer at all. As far as ideas go, I have taught classes on occasion where I differ openly with the President. We have a rock musician as our branch mission leader. Our organist has developed a reputation for being utterly disagreeable in most ways with the leadership (he has been known to declare, while teaching Priesthood, how much he hates coming to Church and other statements of defiance). Granted, he has a relationship with the Branch President that allows him to do that.

    But that’s just it…once you develop a relationship of trust (sorry for the mission jargon), you can be more honest since they know your fundamental values–assuming, of course, that your fundamental values are in line with the Church’s fundamental values. It’s possible…I’ve seen it, experienced it. I suppose the question is whether or not one is willing to be charitable and loving in their dissent. Most dissenters I’ve seen have gone out of their way to be anything but.

  23. Russell: Certainly, there are examples of those who express disagreement. The question is, does the culture value that or not. One way of measuring such value might be to see if the disagreeable organist rises to a level of greater responsibility in the branch or district, or if he remains the quirky organist dude, in a position where he cannot do much harm. As I said, you can see high PDI and low PDI elements in the Church. But when examining the instituion and the culture, what I think you see in spades is “priesthood holders wear white shirts,” don’t use material that is not in the manual,” and do not criticize your leaders, even if they are wrong.” This counsel usually, though not always, followed. I guess you could make the argument that deviation from this counsel is evidence of low PDI.

  24. I suppose I should have noted that the organist is also a priesthood instructor where he voices his disagreeableness often. For obvious reasons, he strikes me more as the quirky organist model than the instructor model! ha…

    And at least in our network, the instructor is viewed as a kind of voice in the wilderness, the person who often says what everyone is thinking but is unwilling to say themselves. Quirky perhaps. And certainly one-of-a-kind; not everyone could pull of what he does. But it’s a kind of quirky that many of us admire.

    As far as the instructions you noted about white shirts, non-correlated material…well, again, I have taught gospel doctrine lessons where I used material that was nowhere to be found in the manuals. Yet it was edifying, uplifting. I was even going to use a secular movie clip (Wizard of Oz to be sure, but hardly correlation material) with the approval of the Sunday School president. And never once was I corrected by anybody. At one time, I was told not to overwhelm the poor souls (too much of a good thing), but they never told me that the material I was using was itself objectionable. Indeed, they encouraged it in moderation. On the white shirts, I’ll give that one to you, but only in my present branch.

    In the end, I have a *really* hard time making a sweeping judgment on this. Some wards are high PDI, others are not. Not much more to it.

  25. Well, I don’t think I made a sweeping generalization. I have said that you and find high PDI and low PDI. But, your phrases “voice in the wilderness,” “what everyone was thinking but is unwilling to say,” and “with the approval of the Sunday School President” kind of prove my point that that high PDI elements are alive and well.

  26. Post

    Is it high-PDI to advise people not to complain and criticize (thereby to preserve authority & power) or is it actually low-PDI spiritual advice (thereby to increase personal responsibility, spirituality and participation)? It seems that the high-PDI individuals are the lay members who want to complain about superiors because they expect those in power to call all the shots. (Although I also think there is a mid-level tendency in some regions toward high-PDI types).

  27. Haha…no, no…this is a much younger fellow…we’re out in the foothills of Appalachia. But your father-in-law sounds like my kind of Mormon.

    And I just use this fellow as a microcosm. I’m fairly outspoken, as is the branch mission leader. And those who are afraid, methinks, are unduly so. They probably have less-opinionated personalities or they might have even agree with the PDI power-structure. I guess we just live in a mid- to low-PDI branch.

    In any case, this organist-gadfly has not been unusual to my experience. I’ve seen wards with more of them–my friend at Harvard says every week is filled with women grumbling about not receiving the priesthood. This is in Sunday School class. Says my friend, “Some days, I really just want to hear a nice, old lady stand up and teach us about faith, repentance, baptism, etc…” These examples are enough for me to feel wary of even saying, “On balance…”

    Though I’m sure the Jell-O belt has its share of PDI aura…

  28. Is it high-PDI to advise people not to complain and criticize (thereby to preserve authority & power) or is it actually low-PDI spiritual advice (thereby to increase personal responsibility, spirituality and participation)? It seems that the high-PDI individuals are the lay members who want to complain about superiors because they expect those in power to call all the shots. (Although I also think there is a mid-level tendency in some regions toward high-PDI types).

    It seems to me though, that this low-PDI spiritual advice would actually leave a nice hole/exit strategy. I can be personally responsible and spiritual if I choose without authority figures looming over me with power. So, this advice only seems low-PDI if you accept the possibility that what people mean to say COULD also be, “Stop complaining about the way things are run…if you don’t like it, go somewhere else.”

    I don’t think most people would think this though. They would intrinsically be trying to preserve authority and power.

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