Tuesday, March 14, 2017

I Hereby Proclaim the Death of Values-Based Recruitment

Vestige (noun): a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists; a part of an organ or organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution

In February of 2014, I called for the death of the values movement. I, along with others, began pointing out the absurdity of guilting our students into “living their values” as a means by which to change their behavior. Noah Borton famously quipped during the inaugural AFA “Ignite Fraternity” program that “I don’t care what your founders would think.” And in the last three years, a funny thing has happened. We have seen a steady decline in the number of programs and conversations focused on “living your values,” less imploring our students to consider “what their founders would think” and a steady rise in conversations centered around brotherhood and sisterhood, accountability, belonging, and authenticity/vulnerability. The language of our field has shifted significantly in the last three years, and frankly, I’d like to take some credit for that. The values movement is dying a slow death, its adherents becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of our industry, and that is a good thing for our field. Guilt-tripping our students into living their values and considering what their founders would think was both developmentally and pedagogically unsound.

In fact, only one vestige of the values movement continues to hang on and fight for life. This vestige has continued to thrive, despite the well-intentioned efforts of a number of people. This vestige has support from the highest echelons of our industry – it has long been considered an untouchable sacred cow. Its defenses are seemingly impregnable, its status as the end-all-be-all for saving the fraternal experience has heretofore gone unquestioned. It is the gold standard that we are all supposed to be teaching our fraternity and sorority members.

I’m talking, of course, about values-based recruitment.

And I’m here today to kill it off once and for all.

In the last year, our team at Dyad Strategies (including Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and myself) set off on an ambitious project. Using sequential explanatory strategy, we embarked on a project to understand the practices of sorority chapters who demonstrated extraordinary levels of the most altruistic versions of sisterhood (common purpose, accountability, and belonging). Working with one of our national organization partners, we surveyed the entire undergraduate membership, identified chapters with the strongest sisterhood, and then spent two days with six different “exemplar” chapters. We observed them in action, we conducted interviews and focus groups, and met with hundreds of students ranging from chapter officers to new members, all in an effort to find out what really matters when it comes to having strong sisterhood in a chapter. We plan on releasing a white paper on this research later in the year.

In our conversations with these exemplar chapters, we were shocked at how often the chapters’ recruitment processes came up in conversation. While we were curious about how these chapters recruited, we did not expect that recruitment would end up playing such a significant role in forming the sisterhood within these chapters. As we discovered, recruitment plays arguably the most important role in forming the strong sisterhood within these exemplar chapters.

Each of the chapters we studied share a great deal in common with regards to their approach to formal recruitment. In particular, they focus a great deal on authentic, deep conversations with potential members, activities that portray a realistic demonstration of the chapter’s sisterhood and activities, and have a variety of methods by which they screen out potential members only interested in the social aspect of sisterhood. As a result, these chapters recruit members who join because of their sense of connection and belonging and NOT because of the chapter’s place in the campus social hierarchy or any other superficial marker of social standing.

In all, six recruitment-related themes emerged within these exemplar chapters:

1. Focus on Authentic Conversations

Each of the exemplar chapters we studied place a tremendous emphasis on authentic conversations during the recruitment process, moving beyond surface-level conversations in an effort to truly get to know the potential members. They evaluate prospective members not based on appearance or “cuteness,” but in some cases purely on the prospective member’s conversation skills and authenticity, asking them questions truly designed to elicit genuine conversations.

As a result, new members from these chapters similarly report, when asked why they joined the organization, that it was the “chapter where I felt I could be myself,” “that they really wanted to get to know me,” and that “the conversations here were different from the conversations in other houses.” As the recruitment chair from one of these chapters stated “the feedback that we received from our new members is that the questions we asked here were so unique compared to other sororities.”

Members of these chapters also take great pride in their ability to have genuine conversations with potential members during recruitment, and the selection process focused on conversation skills provides a self-perpetuating process. As natural conversationalists, new members are easily able to join in and appear to actually enjoy the recruitment process because they genuinely love getting to know the next group of potential members.

2. Depth Over Breadth

Another recruitment technique shared by these exemplar chapters was their focus on depth of conversation during recruitment, as opposed to breadth. In other words, they prefer that a small group of chapter members get to know a PNM in a more in-depth fashion, as opposed to multiple chapter members meeting a PNM but having no more than a surface level conversation. As one new member noted “Here I felt like I really got to have a real conversation with people, but at other sororities it was like the same five questions over and over. How are you supposed to get to know someone in five minutes?”

Two of these exemplar chapters specifically mentioned that they intentionally limit the amount of “bumping” that takes place within the various recruitment rounds. This practice was noticed and appreciated by the new members of this chapters, and they appreciated the opportunity to have more in-depth conversations. As one new member noted “this was the only house during first round where I didn’t get bumped, and it was so nice to just sit down and have a conversation.”

3. Open the Door to Vulnerability

Another practice that emerged as among these exemplar chapters was the creating of moments where active members opened up and shared about themselves to a PNM, with the hope that the PNM would then do the same in turn. One chapter in particular discussed an activity in which they engaged during their philanthropy round. After being told about the chapter’s “Girls on the Run” philanthropy, PNM’s and active members were given a crescent moon made of construction paper and were asked to write the name of the person for whom they were being strong. Once the names were written, the active paired with a PNM would share her story of who she was being strong for and why, and would then invite the PNM to do the same. By opening the door and being vulnerable first, the active member encouraged the PNM to also share and be vulnerable, which, according to members of this group, often led to in-depth conversations about important people in one’s life.

4. Buck the Status Quo

One of the chapters went against the “status quo” in a significant way. The most visible example was the chapter’s approach to “Sisterhood night” in the wake of the NPC removal of skits. When all other chapters on campus performed songs, listed “top 10 facts about…” and showed an overproduced glittery recruitment “sisterhood” video, this chapter opted for an authentic exposure of their true sisterhood. Members submitted their favorite moments and memories—which were then subsequently read aloud with the PNMs present in the center of a large circle. Members never knew if, or when, their memory would be read, so they were constantly engaged to see whose memory would be read next.  The women described the process as electric – full of laughs, tears, hugs, and smiles. Having not been there, we can only imagine the power and electricity that must have been felt by the prospective members. They sat in the epicenter of the love and appreciation these chapter members show each other daily – and at such a powerful time – the night before they must make their preference decisions. It no doubt took courage to do something different, and the new members all talked about the power of that experience, and how it shaped their decision to join. As one student noted “you could literally feel the energy in the room.”

5. Group vs. Individual Conversations

Chapters with strong sisterhood in these areas also provided opportunities for new members to see how chapter members interact in a group setting during recruitment. For example, on preference night, a chapter has a group of 3-4 actives go into a room with 3-4 PNM’s where they all just talk, laugh and get to know one another in a group setting. PNM’s particularly liked this, noting that it gave them an opportunity to see how close the members really are, how much they genuinely liked one another, and how they could see themselves fitting into the group. As one PNM noted, upon leaving one of these parties, “I knew I wanted a group of friends like that.”

6. PNM Red Flags

In addition to creating opportunities for meaningful, authentic conversations during the recruitment process, these high-performing chapters also displayed similar systems of screening out potential members who may only be interested in the social aspects of the sorority. Several chapter members, including recruitment chairs, from these groups discussed a variety of “red flags” that they take note of during the recruitment process. PNM’s displaying any of these behaviors were subject to additional scrutiny and were often dropped by the chapters. This list of “red flags” included the following:

  • PNM’s who showed interest, made comments or asked questions regarding the campus “social hierarchy” or discussed or brought up the sorority’s place in the tier system (interestingly, each of the groups in our research would best be described as being on the lower end of the top tier according to recruitment statistics)
  • PNM’s who talked negatively about other chapters on campus (fraternities or sororities)
  • PNM’s who are overly concerned with the social aspects of the sorority (i.e. asking “what fraternities do you social with?” or “what do you all do on the weekends?”)
NOT About Values-Based Recruitment

Interestingly, what was NOT discussed in conversations about recruitment was as illuminating as what was discussed and has been outlined above. In particular, the notion of “values-based recruitment” was one that never came up in our conversations. When new members of these chapters were asked why they joined these exemplar chapters with extraordinary levels of sisterhood, the answers almost inevitably had some connection to belonging, authenticity, and meaningful conversations. In other words, new members of these chapters joined because of a sense of belonging, and NOT because of any connection to the organization’s values. And when asked about recruitment strategy, the chapter recruitment teams echoed these sentiments. They often spoke of “really getting to know the girls” and “having genuine conversations with depth” but never did they discuss an effort to “sell” prospective members on the organization’s values. As a result, our research team was left to believe that, in these chapters that demonstrate values congruence (vis a vis high scores on common purpose sisterhood), the congruence comes about as a result of joining a sorority because of a sense of belonging, thereby making a connection to the organization’s shared values easier upon being initiated, and not because of some “selling” of the organization’s values during the recruitment process.

Put more simply, successful chapters with strong sisterhood achieve that sisterhood by making the recruitment process about genuine connection and NOT about selling a set of proscribed values. Students are not joining these exemplar chapters because of values alignment, they are joining because of a deep sense of connection, authenticity and belonging. Then, once they get into the organization, values congruence is being achieved through informal systems of accountability, which are made possible through the high levels of belonging and connection within the chapters. In other words, values congruence can only be achieved AFTER students have developed a strong sense of belonging and connection within the organization. Values congruence is not an antecedent of the sorority experience; it is a descendent of a sorority experience in which one feels authentic, meaningful connection, support, and belonging.

“Values-based recruitment” implies that our organizations should actively “sell” their values to prospective members, and that these prospective members should “select” the organization whose values most closely align with their own in a process of mutual selection. The flawed logic in this model should be obvious to all of us who work in this industry.

First, as we know from Baxter-Magolda’s theory of self-authorship, most 18 year-old college freshmen are living their lives through external formulas. They have no idea what their actual values are, as they have been living according to the values of their parents and adolescent communities. To suggest that they should make a life-long commitment based on externally construed values, when they have yet to even develop their own values as a person, seems counter-productive to me. As I stated in the “Problem with Values Congruence” article, taking a student’s pre-existing external formulas and trying to replace them with another set of external formulas (the organization’s values) is not only counter-productive, but anti-developmental. If we are really interested in helping our students connect to their organization's values, we would be better suited to create environments where students feel comfortable exploring personal values through authentic relationships than by foisting a set of organizational values on them the minute they walk through our door.

Secondly, values-based recruitment is a horrible concept because the values of all of our organizations are pretty much the same! If we were to take all 26 NPC member groups and construct a Venn diagram of their stated values, the area of overlap would be, in a conservative estimate, 75 percent. How are 18 year-old college freshmen, in a rushed and frenzied recruitment week, supposed to decipher and distinguish one organization’s values from another in an effort to find the ONE group whose values most align with their own when the values of these groups are all mostly the same?!?! This is a Herculean task that I don’t suspect many of the adults in our industry could do, yet we have asked it of our students. The whole idea seems ludicrous to me.

Lastly, and most importantly, students joining sororities (and fraternities) are not doing so because they seek values alignment in their lives. At worst, they are joining because they want a social experience in college that will expose them to the best that the campus social culture has to offer. At best, they are joining because the crave meaningful connection and belonging. The best we can ever hope to do is to help more of our organizations shift away from selling a social experience, promoting their own social status by selling a glamorous image of sorority membership that often has little to no basis in reality (Look at all the cute boys we hang out with! Look at our cute girls blowing glitter in conspicuous places around campus! Look how cute and fun we are! Cute and fun! Cute and fun!) and, instead, help them understand that the purpose of recruitment is not to SELL anything (the fun OR the values). Rather, recruitment should be about creating authentic conversations in a way that will allow more potential members to join the chapter where they will truly find the most meaningful connections and a place to belong. Furthermore, would we suggest to a PNM that she join an organization because of a connection with the organization’s values even if that PNM felt no sense of belonging or connection at all to the members of the chapter? This seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.

Let’s stop trying to guilt our students into selling their values and start teaching them how to make recruitment about creating authentic, meaningful connections. To give credit where credit is due, the women’s side of Phired Up Productions have been talking about this for a few years now. I continue to be impressed by the intersection of their work and what we are discovering in our research.

So today, I’m declaring the death of the “values-based recruitment” movement and proclaiming the birth of the “authentic conversation-based recruitment” movement. Values-based recruitment is the last remaining vestige of the values movement, and, like our tonsils or appendix, it is time for our industry to remove this wasteful, counter-productive appendage from the body of our collective work.