Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Power of Belonging

*This post is the first in a series of three posts related to brother/sisterhood based on belonging. This post will cover the reasons why belonging is such an important part of the fraternity/sorority experience. The second post will discuss what we have found are the best ways to foster belonging at the chapter level. The final post will explore the particular problem of belonging in sororities.

For the last four years, Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and I have been engaged in an in-depth study of fraternal brotherhood and sisterhood. In our research, we have discovered that men and women experience brotherhood and sisterhood in different ways, and that the degree to which they experience the various elements of brother/sisterhood powerfully predicts a variety of other outcomes related to the fraternity and sorority experience.

During that time, as we have developed curriculum related to brother/sisterhood, we have tended to focus most of our efforts on boosting brother/sisterhood based on accountability. Being the most altruistic form of brotherhood, and perhaps of sisterhood, it made sense to us that if we could only help more chapters become more comfortable holding one another accountable, all of the problems in fraternity/sorority world would be worked out. What we have discovered in the last four years is that before students can become comfortable holding one another accountable, they must first become comfortable with one another. In other words, students must feel a sense of belonging before we can expect them to master the art of accountability. Belonging, not accountability, is the most important aspect of brotherhood and sisterhood, because without belonging, accountability is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

To be clear, accountability is still important. In fact, ALL of the schema of brotherhood are important – not just those which are the most altruistic. As we have observed in our conversations with chapters over the last few years, a deficiency in ANY aspect of brother/sisterhood can have detrimental impact on a chapter. But over time, we have observed both quantitatively and qualitatively that belonging plays a critical role in a chapter’s overall brother/sisterhood profile.

Think about it – most students join a fraternity or sorority to find a place to belong on campus. The need to belong has been the lifeblood of fraternities and sororities over the years – it is THE driving force in membership recruitment. Students looking for a place to meaningfully connect with like-minded others have flocked to fraternities and sororities for nearly two centuries. This seeking of belonging is not a frivolous pursuit that fraternities and sororities provide for only the most affluent students. Rather, belonging is a fundamental human need. If you are a student of Maslow, then you know that, once basic survival needs are taken care of, the most basic human need is a place to belong. As humans, we crave connection. We are social creatures, and our evolutionary instincts have driven us to play well with others so that we will be accepted and loved by our respective tribes. A need for a life of connection, rather than a life of isolation, has driven this phenomenon for generations. The need to belong is not new.

As we have analyzed larger and larger datasets over the years (we have now had over 20,000 women and 15,000 complete the Fraternal Brotherhood and Fraternal Sisterhood Questionnaires), we have noted five important findings that illustrate why belonging is the most important aspect of brotherhood and sisterhood:

1. Belonging explains the most variance in the overall brother/sisterhood models

All of the schema of brother/sisterhood are positively correlated with one another. If any one goes up or down in a significant way, we would expect to see the other schema impacted in some way. But when completing a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) on the overall brotherhood/sisterhood models, we find that belonging explains the greatest variance in the overall models for both brother and sisterhood. In other words, belonging is a powerful driver of all of the other schema of brother/sisterhood. As belonging goes, so go the other schema. A chapter that measures high in belonging will likely measure high in the other areas of brother/sisterhood. A chapter measuring low in belonging will likely struggle in other areas of brother/sisterhood as well.

Conceptually, this makes sense. It is hard to imagine being part of a group where you do not feel like you share meaningful connections to other group members, but feel like you are supported, feel like the experience is fun, or feel comfortable holding other group members accountable to the groups expectations. Without belonging, we really don’t have brotherhood or sisterhood. Brother/sisterhood may not end with belonging, but it most definitely begins there.

2. The strongest predictor of the most altruistic versions of brother/sisterhood is belonging

Of all its relationships with the other schema of brother/sisterhood, belonging has the strongest correlation with the two most altruistic schema. For men, belonging is the strongest predictor of brotherhood based on accountability (correlation of .346). In women, belonging is the strongest predictor of sisterhood based on common purpose (correlation of .78).

Consider the practical implications of this. For men, this tells us that the more that fraternity members feel connected to one another, the more likely they are to hold one another to the chapter’s standards and expectations. The less men feel a sense of belonging, the less likely they are to hold one another accountable. Before men are comfortable enough to hold their brothers to mutually agreed upon expectations, they must first be comfortable having deep, meaningful conversations with them. Vulnerability and connection comes first, accountability comes second.

For women, belonging is an incredibly strong predictor of sisterhood based on common purpose. If sorority members do not establish meaningful connections to one another, it is unlikely that they will develop meaningful connection to the organization’s purpose. As we have learned in our conversations with sorority women, belonging comes from authenticity – a feeling of “being able to be myself in front of my sisters” instead of having to wear a mask and “pretend that things are always great, even if they aren’t.” The data suggest that until women feel they can be authentic with one another, they are much less likely to feel comfortable holding their sisters accountable or buying into the organization’s purpose and mission.

3. Belonging powerfully predicts organizational commitment

In our research, we have studied organizational commitment in a variety of ways, but the two that seem to make the best connection to the fraternity/sorority experience are affective commitment and normative commitment.

Affective commitment is best described as an emotional commitment. A person measuring high on affective commitment has a deep and abiding love for their organization and the people in it. Because of that emotional connection, they are committed to the organization. They stay involved, support the organizations efforts, and attend organization events because of their feeling of love for the organization and its members.

Normative commitment is best described as a sense of obligation. Someone measuring high on this construct would likely say “I feel like my fraternity/sorority has given so much to me. I feel obligated to give back to the organization because all I’ve gotten from this experience.” They stay involved and support the chapter’s events because of that feeling of obligation.

Both of these constructs are predicted by a number of things we have studied, but the most powerful predictor of both affective and normative commitment, for both men and women, is belonging. The more you feel a meaningful connection to your chapter brothers/sisters, the more committed you are to them and the organization. Because of this, chapters measuring high on belonging should also expect to have better membership retention, as commitment is a strong predictor of retention. The more committed you are, the more likely you are to stay around. The less committed you are, the more likely you are to leave. And nothing predicts this commitment as powerfully as belonging.

4. Belonging powerfully predicts Organizational Identification

Imagine that member of your chapter who never leaves the house without wearing letters. Shirts. Hats. Sandals. Letters on their can. Hell, maybe even an ankle tat.

When I think of that person in my own chapter, I always think of Johnny Barnes. In four years, I don’t think I ever saw Johnny wearing anything other than AGR letters. He bought every single t-shirt that was available. He had at least six hats, a fleece jacket, a pullover, letters on his car, and if memory serves he had a tattoo as well. He literally never left the house without repping the letters of our beloved fraternity. AGR was an important part of Johnny’s identity on campus. He did not want people on campus to know him as merely Johnny – he wanted to be known as Johnny the AGR. The fraternity was fully and completely intertwined in his personal identity.

The “Johnny Barnes Phenomenon” is something we have actually studied in our research, through a construct called Organizational Identification. Fraternity/sorority members measuring high on Org ID make the fraternity/sorority a big part of their identity. They wear letters. They attend events. They want to see the organization succeed, because when the organization is successful, they are successful, because the organization is a part of them.

Belonging is the strongest predictor of Organizational Identification for both men and women. The more you feel a sense of belonging and connection to your brothers/sisters, the more likely you are to make the organization a big piece of your personal identity. Like both affective and normative commitment, Org ID is also a powerful predictor of member retention. Chapter members measuring high on Org ID would never dream of quitting, going inactive, or otherwise leaving the organization, because it is such a big piece of who they are. After all, if you are “Johnny the AGR,” then not being at AGR is almost inconceivable.

My guess is that every chapter has a Johnny Barnes. But imagine a chapter filled with members like Johnny Barnes. That can happen only when chapters work hard to make sure that members feel a deep sense of connection and belonging.

5. Belonging is the most powerful predictor of overall satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience

In our recent research with some of our national fraternity and sorority clients, we have begun asking students to respond to a single survey item asking them, overall, how satisfied they are with their fraternity/sorority experience. Using regression analysis, we have then looked at the variables that predict this satisfaction item. Even when controlling for every other variable that we measure (generally between 30 and 40), belonging explains over 30 percent of the variance in overall satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience. It is by far and away the most powerful predictor of satisfaction – the next closest variable is affective commitment, which explains a mere 16 percent of the variance in satisfaction.

Think about the implications of that for a minute. Exactly 1/3 of a fraternity or sorority member’s overall satisfaction with their experience is explained by a single variable – belonging. Its importance in the fraternity/sorority experience cannot be overstated. Belonging, simply put, is the single most important aspect of the fraternity/sorority experience. Members who feel they belong are more committed, happier, more satisfied with their experience, more likely to embrace accountability, and more likely to persist within the organization through graduation compared to members who do not feel that same sense of belonging.

Belonging’s importance in the fraternity/sorority experience cannot be overstated. Every campus, and every fraternity and sorority HQ, would be wise to commit time, energy and resources helping their chapters create spaces where members feel valued, connected and appreciated. In the next installment of this three-part series, we will explore strategies that we have seen work best at the chapter level in creating that sense of connection and belonging. Stay tuned!