Life is stewardship. In a perfect world, everyone would not only recognize that fact, but they would also recognize and accept the responsibilities that go with their individual stewardship. Perhaps people would still need to be told what to do, but they would never need to be coerced. “Do this in order to receive this short term reward” would be weird, and “Do this, or else” would be unheard of.
But that isn’t the world we live in, and people are much in need of leaders to influence, persuade, and yes, coerce.
Coercion, though, is so easily botched! As a result, leaders often lapse into acting like either bullies or beggars, and both errors tend to produce followers who don’t follow. As one who struggles to use the tools of leadership properly (and who has experienced their misuse by others), I believe it’s worth the effort to understand coercion better.
Previously, I overviewed the leadership tools of coercion, persuasion, and influence, and what I mean by these terms. Here we’ll take a closer look at coercion, its value, some of the many ways it goes wrong, and some specific harms. These observations are grouped around three principles.
1. We All Have to Coerce Sometimes.
Coercion is an occasional responsibility in many roles. Parents must coerce (Prov. 22:15, 29:15). Government authorities must coerce (Rom. 13:1, 4). Ordinary, decent human beings in general must coerce when someone we can help is being victimized by a bully or more serious attacker (e.g., Psalm 82:3-4).
In a culture that prizes individual liberty, we tend to broadly reject coercion when we’re on the receiving end. But we’re willing enough to use it on others when we think it’s warranted—and sometimes it is.
Do pastors have coercive authority over their congregations? Though the New Testament emphasizes persuasion (2 Tim. 2:24) and influence (1 Tim. 4:12) in the pastoral role, and places only limited corrective (and coercive) action in the hands of congregations (1 Cor. 5:4-5), elders/pastors are obligated to “rebuke” at times.
Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, (ESV, Titus 1:13)
Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:15)
But is rebuke coercion?
2. It’s Easier to Use Coercion than We Tend to Think.
In Part 1, I explained that I’m using “coercion” to refer to any use of external leverage to achieve a desired behavior. To put it another way, it’s the tool that uses a stated or implied “or else.” This can take a great many forms.
We all know people who use emotional coercion on a regular basis as a habitual mode of relating to people—and they scarcely seem aware of it. Since they inflict a kind of emotional pain (we wince!), nagging and scolding are forms of emotional coercion. The implied or-else is, “Do what I want you to do or I’m going to keep nagging and scolding you.”
Biblical rebuke is a close cousin to scolding but is different in a couple of crucial ways. For one, biblical rebuke is aimed at specific error. It’s not an angry tirade or laundry list of “things about you that bug me!” Second, it’s a tool used intentionally—not an emotional outburst.
Emotional coercion also often takes the form of accusations, insults, and unwarranted attacks on motives and character.
It would probably sloppy to say that nagging, scolding, and insulting are never appropriate forms of coercion, but because they tend to be self-indulgent and thoughtless, odds are good that coercion in this form fails in one or more of these ways:
- The authority to coerce does not actually exist in the role.
- Some other form of coercive leverage would be far more effective.
- Coercion is unnecessary because patient teaching (persuasion) is both possible and practical.
As an example, husbands are—as far as I can tell—not authorized to coerce their wives. If less than zero is possible, wives are even less authorized to coerce husbands! Since women generally possess a higher degree of emotional skill than men, the emotionally coercive wife is not uncommon. (Curiously, this is rarely talked about.)
The point here, though, is that many of us can emotionally bully people without realizing we’re doing it—and even in roles where some kind of emotional coercion is permissible, the results of this kind of coercion are nearly always counterproductive.
- Negative emotion begets negative emotion (Proverbs 15:1).
- Emotional coercion tends to fuel resentment and resistance (Eph. 6:5).
If your followers don’t follow, it may well be because you’re emotionally hitting them over the head all the time—and people instinctively (and correctly) feel that they are entitled to more respect than that. This is even true of children.
I have observed individuals who routinely give their fellow human beings less respect than I give my dog. What they don’t seem to realize is that using emotional battering this way erodes their personal influence. As they fail to show respect to others, others lose respect for them as well. Often, a dynamic of resentful compliance develops in which those on the receiving end determine to do only the bare minimum they can get away with—and even that with absolutely no enthusiasm. Some will actively look for ways to sabotage the overall effort.
Where the authority to coerce is legitimate, there is almost always a better method than emotional pressure. Rather than yelling at Johnny every time he leaves the toilet seat up (or worse yet, telling him what a lazy slob he is), inform him cheerfully that he’ll be cleaning the entire toilet next time—“to help him remember.” (If he claims innocence, cheerfully explain that you need his help to solve this problem and you are appointing him official Guardian of the Toilet Seat. His solemn duty is to ensure that everyone puts the seat down. Some recognition for success might well solve the problem permanently.)
Rather than yelling at a team for not meeting a production goal, task them with setting their own goal and throw a party when they reach it (better yet, build in a bonus-based incentive system).
Rather than harangue a congregation for not attending services often enough, help them understand why they, as believers, actually really do want to be present (and/or make sure plenty of what thriving believers crave is there for them when they do come).
Rather than scolding the entire class (again!) for the failure of many to be seated and quiet when the bell rings, cheerfully inform them that next time, you will simply begin to write down the names of those not seated and quiet the moment the bell rings, and those on the list will have additional homework. (Dramatize the list-making when the time comes, and even a room with 30 high-energy 7th graders will settle down very quickly. A few days of this and you’ll rarely have any names to take at all.) Or flip it around: the first five to be seated and silent when the bell rings receive a special exemption from a dreaded daily or weekly assignment. (What will happen, though, is that everyone will be seated and silent before the bell rings…so keeping your promise can get complicated at that point!)
3. We’re All Guilty of Using Coercion at Times When We Should Not.
Not everyone overuses coercion habitually. But I’m convinced that everyone occasionally fails to use better alternatives. The reasons for this are many. Coercion is often the fastest and simplest way to get results, superficial though those results might be. Coercion is certainly instinctive in many situations, and whatever is automatic is going to be used thoughtlessly and wrongfully at times. Anger and fear are often factors as well: the angry urge to destroy resistance and the fearful urge to have everything under control both tilt us toward coercive behavior in situations where it isn’t the best option.