Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can Fraternities Become Victims of Their Own Success?

As I have traveled around the country working with fraternity chapters over the last few years, I have discovered a few universal truths about fraternity life. Foremost among them is this – almost all fraternity chapters crave social status within their respective communities.

Every campus fraternity system has what I call the “social pecking order” – a social hierarchy into which groups are divided by those within the community. On most campuses, the system is more or less equally divided into three general categories – top tier, middle tier, and bottom tier. During my time at Alabama, there were only two (old row vs. new row). The chapters on any given campus are keenly aware of the existence of this social hierarchy and, more importantly, their place within it. Improving or maintaining their ranking within this social pecking order is among the primary goals of most fraternity (and sorority) chapters in America. Fraternities within any given campus system are almost always jockeying for position, doing all in their power to climb the social ladder and achieve “elite” status on their campus.

This mentality is actually a construct that we measure in our research at Dyad Strategies. Our Social Status Importance scale measures the degree to which chapters place an emphasis on their place in the social pecking order, and the construct is strongly correlated with a variety of negative behaviors (including alcohol abuse, unethical behavior, and attitudes about hazing and sexual violence). The more that a chapter cares about its place in the social hierarchy, the more willing they are to cut corners, break rules, and engage in unethical behavior in climbing the social ladder.

What we have found in our research is that, within a sorority system, the social hierarchy is very rigid and fixed. Sororities spend vast resources attempting to improve their status (often measured by Relative Recruiting Strength, a horrible measure of the quality of a chapter), only to find that they are unable to climb in the rankings, stuck in their position for seemingly all of eternity. This is true for a variety of reasons – top/middle tier sorority chapters rarely close, and the sorority recruitment system is designed to ensure consistency, homogeneity and the elimination of variance within a campus community. The result is that, once a sorority’s place in the campus social hierarchy becomes apparent, it is incredibly rare for that position to change. They are, in effect, stuck.

This is not the case within a fraternity community. With fraternities, the social hierarchy is fluid and always changing. Top and middle tier groups are regularly closed or reorganized for various risk management violations. The fraternity recruitment system on most campuses is loosely organized, allowing for a variety of approaches leading to a variety of outcomes – where the sorority recruitment process eliminates variance, the fraternity recruitment process encourages it. A middle-tier fraternity can have a good string of recruitment chairs and over a period of a few years can quickly climb the rankings and find themselves in the top tier, especially if a few top tier chapters get in trouble, are placed on probation, are reorganized or get closed during that time. The result of this fluidity is that the social hierarchy within most campus fraternity communities is completely reshuffled every 5-10 years.

I regularly work with fraternities who are the beneficiaries of this fluidity. Recently, I had the opportunity to do work on a campus that has closed five groups for hazing and other risk management violations over the last four years. All of the closed groups would have been considered top tier at the time of their departure. The result of this is a new group of previously mid-tier fraternities, those who were working the hardest to achieve social status on campus, now find themselves on top of the social ladder.

And this is a big problem for these fraternity chapters.

These chapters are extremely likely to become victims of their own success.

When a fraternity is in the middle tier on a campus, men usually join that chapter for altruistic reasons. Perhaps they feel a strong sense of belonging. Perhaps they are attracted to the fraternity’s values, or their academic success. Whatever the reason, the members of this chapter are generally not joining because of the group’s place in the campus social hierarchy. But when one of these fraternities wakes up one day and realizes that they are in the top tier on campus, a strange thing begins to happen. Men begin joining the chapter not because of a sense of belonging or a connection, but because the chapter is in the top tier and will provide them with the social capital they crave on campus. Members begin joining social status instead of belonging.

Eventually, the fraternity catches on to what is happening. They realize that they have members joining the chapter in order to exploit the social benefits associated with group membership. Once they come to this realization, a vicious cycle begins within the chapter. The natural, and most common, response to this revelation is to devise clever ways to prevent prospective members from exploiting the group’s social status.

In other words, the chapter begins hazing.

It may not be completely accurate to say that they “begin” hazing, because there is a good chance that they were already engaged in the behavior before coming to this realization. But, even if they were engaged in hazing before they became “top tier,” the motivation for the hazing is very likely to change once the group becomes aware of the problem associated with members exploiting the chapter’s social status. Once this realization occurs, the motivation behind the hazing shifts from building solidarity among the new member class towards having new members “earn their letters” through acts of hazing designed to test their loyalty/commitment to the group, or towards hazing designed around social dominance - reminding freshman of their place in the social hierarchy. As Aldo Cimino has articulated in his research, the hazing is now designed to prevent “free-riders” – those members who seek to exploit the benefits of the group without doing their fair share of the work. New members must now show how much they want to be in the group. How much pain, humiliation, and abuse are they willing to withstand in order to become a member of a top tier group?

Once fraternity chapters switch the focus of their new member education process away from teaching and building brotherhood and towards making new members “earn their letters,” the next phase of the cycle begins. Chapter members who have endured the social dominance or commitment-based hazing begin developing a strong sense of entitlement. They feel that nothing should be expected of them once they have earned their membership during the new member process. They become lazy and apathetic. The freshman  do all of the work, while the older members enjoy the benefits of having freshman around to do all of the things that they don’t want to do. Motivation goes down. Involvement goes down. Chapter members become less engaged in the life of the chapter, concerning themselves only with social events and hazing the next crop of pledges. 

Eventually, well-intentioned chapter leaders notice what is going on, and instead of fixing the new member education program, they often decide that the problem is that they are not hazing hard enough. The reason they have lazy, entitled, apathetic members, they believe, is because they still aren’t doing enough to build loyalty and commitment among the pledges. As a result, the hazing escalates. It becomes more intense, more abusive, and more degrading. Eventually, the hazing becomes so severe that something bad happens, the fraternity gets caught and closed down, a new fraternity takes the old fraternity’s place among the “top tier” chapters on campus, and the whole process starts over again.

Fraternities can, and often do, become victims of their own success. After years of striving and effort, they become a top tier group, which launches a vicious cycle in which they begin hazing, creating a sense of entitlement among members, which fosters even more hazing, which eventually leads to the group's closure and the process starting over again with a new group on campus.

So how do we prevent this cycle from happening?

The most common mistake that fraternities make upon entering this cycle is assuming that the best way to weed out free-riders is during the pledging process. As it turns out, this is the WORST way to weed out free riders – even the laziest of free-riders could be motivated enough by the group’s social standing to endure a few months of hazing in order to enjoy four years of social clout guaranteed to them through their membership in the group. Once a free-rider receives a bid to join a top tier group, it is often too late. Instead of waiting until the new member education process to weed out free-riders, chapters must incorporate strategies of weeding out the students interested in exploiting the chapter's social stauts during the recruitment process, and then refocusing the purpose of their new member education process away from making new members "earn it" and towards the creation of belonging. 

These strategies include:

Asking Better Questions – instead of “selling” the chapter’s social clout to potential members, chapters would be wise to ask questions designed to weed out those potential free-riders seeking to exploit the chapter’s social standing. A simple question like “what are you looking to get out of a fraternity” can often elicit an illuminating response. “Why are you interested in our chapter” is similarly well-designed to weed out would-be free riders. Some chapters I have worked with even have a “quality control” process by which prospective members are interviewed and asked these questions, along with questions about substance abuse and what the prospective member will bring to the group. Through the questions we ask prospective members during the recruitment process, we are able to screen out those men who are only seeking social capital. Not only are the answers to the questions we ask illuminating for us, but the mere fact that we ask them may cause a prospective member seeking only a social experience to look elsewhere for that experience.

Sell More Than the Social Experience - Chapters are, in essence "selling" their brotherhood to prospective members during the recruitment process. A common mistake that fraternities, especially top tier fraternities, make is that they oversell the social aspects of their brotherhood and undersell the other aspects of their brotherhood (belonging and accountability). In a previous post, I've shared strategies for selling brotherhood beyond the social experience. As chapters find themselves in the top tier, it is incredibly important that they sell more than just their social clout on campus. If they only sell the social aspects of brotherhood during recruitment, they will wind up with members who ONLY care about the social aspects of brotherhood, which will contribute to the chapter's demise.

Focus on Belonging – As I’ve written previously, fraternities who want committed members should build their new member education process around the creation of belonging, and not around the construction of solidarity or the testing of loyalty/commitment. The fraternities with the highest degree of commitment are those in which members feel the strongest sense of belonging, and the severity of hazing within a chapter has no relationship at all with belonging OR commitment.

The “victim of our own success” cycle is not inevitable. It can be stopped, or prevented altogether. By assessing and understanding your chapters’ attitudes about the importance of social status and the motivations behind their new member education process (things that Dyad Strategies measures in our campus and organizational assessments), we can target those chapters most at risk of falling into this cycle and intervene before it is too late. By helping fraternities understand the importance of screening out free-riders during the recruitment process (as opposed to waiting until the new member education process), and by helping them build a new member education process centered on the creation of belonging, we can beat the cycle and help our fraternity chapters enjoy the fruits of their success instead of becoming victims of it.