Category Archives: risk reduction

Why People Conform

“Be Yourself” is one of the most repeated and accepted axioms of our time.  But is conformity inherently bad?  It’s natural, after all, to surround ourselves with like-minded people who share common tastes and preferences–the very foundation of social relationships.  An entire chapter with Costas, Croakies and Top Siders isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But when conformity takes the form of groupthink and impairs our ability to make rational decisions, the results can be disastrous.

This PSYBLOG post lists ten factors that contribute to conformity.  Here are just a few:

2.  Dissent

As soon as there’s someone who disagrees, or even just dithers or can’t decide, conformity is reduced. Some studies have found conformity can be reduced from highs of 97% on a visual judgement task down to only 36% when there is a competent dissenter in the ranks (Allen & Levine, 1971).

Dissenters must be consistent, though, otherwise they’ll fail to convince the majority.

Indeed, all it takes is one dissenting voice to avoid a bad idea.

5.  Need for structure

While personality might not be as important as the situation in which people are put, it none the less has an effect. Some people have more of a ‘need for structure’ and consequently are more likely to conform (Jugert et al., 2009).

Teaching “time management” is often used as a facade for expecting candidates to adhere to arbitrarily busy schedules.

9. Social Norms

Other people affect us even when they’re not present. Whether or not we recycle, litter the street or evade tax often comes down to our perception of society’s view. Most of us are strongly influenced by thinking about how others would behave in the same situation we are in, especially when we are unsure how to act (Cialdini, 2001).

The higher we perceive the level of consensus, the more we are swayed. We are also more easily swayed if we know little about the issue ourselves or can’t be bothered to examine it carefully.

Unfortunately, many candidates who join hazing chapters falsely believe their experience to be the norm.

Don’t Drink the Hazing Kool-Aid: Lessons from Jonestown

Jim Jones, Peoples Temple founder

I watched a documentary on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple last weekend and couldn’t help but relate some of the underlying causes to fraternity life.  No, I’m not suggesting that fraternity life is becoming a socialist utopia turned forced-labor camp; comparing is not equating and few analogies are perfect.  But attempting to understand why 909 people were convinced by a toxic leader to commit mass suicide holds lessons on how groups of good people can make bad decisions.  Here are a few of the parallels:

1.  Total denial of reality

Throughout the documentary members of the Peoples Temple repeatedly claim, “[Jonestown] is heaven on Earth,” or “I’ve never been so happy in my entire life.”  This false sense of reality continued even to the day Jones ordered his followers to inject their children with cyanide-laced kool-aid, just before committing their own suicide.

For some reason student leaders tend to overestimate the current performance of their organization.  I’ve heard too many times, “Everything is going great, couldn’t be better,” from a chapter with lousy grades, low numbers, no campus involvement and multiple hazing investigations.  Identifying and acknowledging a problem is the first step to becoming an excellent chapter.

If personal servitude is the core philosophy of your chapter’s candidate education program but you’ve convinced yourself it’s not hazing (and you tell everyone “we’re a non-hazing chapter”) then you are denying reality.

It’s no coincidence that the All Chapter LEAD Session on Accountability includes “See It” and “Own It” in the four-step model.

2.  The dangers of good intentions

We’ve all heard of the famous road paved with good intentions.  Jim Jones preached about peace, justice, equality and other such virtues during service at the Peoples Temple.  Sounds good, right?  Who wouldn’t be for justice and treating people fairly?  On the surface Jones preached the virtues of the Bible, but it quickly became apparent (evidently not for the church’s members) that he maintained a deeper agenda: absolute control over his followers.

Jones even cajoled members into donating their life savings to the church.  People sold their homes, cashed in their retirement savings, quit their jobs and turned all belongings over to the collective.  In turn, members were provided with food, health care, housing and a community of people for life.

Were members of The Peoples Temple more gullible than the average person?  Did Jim Jones prey upon the poor and undereducated?  Maybe, maybe not.  Either way, the ash heap of history contains countless groups of perfectly sensible people who were duped into bad decisions (or even suicide, in this case) by the allure of good intentions.

Ask any Marshal the goal of his candidate education program and you’re sure to get this answer: “We want the candidates to bond together, learn the history, and prove they’re worthy of initiation.”  Who could argue with that?  We can’t just initiate anyone, right?  Isn’t  a brotherhood supposed to bond?

But what happens when “learning the history” becomes public quizzing sessions of arbitrary yelling?  Or when “proving you’re worthy of initiation” becomes running errands for brothers or completing other arbitrary tasks?  Or when “candidate class bonding” becomes public embarrassment or even worse?  Watch out for the bait-and-switch of good intentions for other hidden agendas.

Hazing is often perpetuated under the guise of good intentions: bonding, building better men and teaching history.  But the new student leader isn’t falling for it any longer.  The emerging student leader recognizes hazing for what is is: a system for deadbeat brothers to gain unearned respect and a source of entertainment for the others.  Deadbeat members should be asked to leave, and those who joined to be entertained should reread their candidate Ritual ceremony.

3. Waiting for disaster to acknowledge the need for change

How many times have we seen a community “come together” in the wake of some tragedy?  Why should it take the preventable death of a student for the Greek life community to put the rivalries aside and support each other?  Why do some chapters only understand the connection between risk reduction guidelines and valid insurance until after tragedy strikes?

Once Jim Jones moved his Peoples Temple from northern California to Jonestown, French Guiana, it should have become clear that something wasn’t right.  But the members continued to deny reality and accepted Jones’ sermons as absolute truths.

Jones became increasingly authoritarian, irrational and hysterical; his sermons shifted from discussions of equality and justice to instilling a constant sense of fear among the members.  The collective utopia started to look more like a forced-labor camp than the promise land.

Other members of The Peoples Temple must have known about the giant stash of cyanide.  Jim Jones even held trial runs of his plans to commit mass suicide.  But no one said anything until it was too late.

Lessons learned?

So what does this extreme example of groupthink and mass delusion have to do with fraternity life?  While we aren’t headed for the mass hysteria that ended in a tragedy like Jonestown, we can recognize that groups of intelligent college men are capable of making bad decisions–albeit on a much smaller scale.

By now you’ve probably realized the origin of the popular phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”  Next time your chapter is coalescing around a bad idea, you be the one to recognize it and do something about it.  Don’t drink the hazing Kool-Aid.

-Nathaniel Clarkson

Five Musts For Leaders

Another great post over at the Washington Post leadership blog:

1. Be present and accessible. More than usual. More than ever. Helps a lot to be seen. “Management by Walking Around,” as Peters and Waterman wrote almost 30 years ago, is more critical now than ever before. C.P. Snow wrote in the late 50s that leaders “must never absent themselves during times of crisis.” Be there. Now. Visible.

Perhaps this advice applies more to the closed-door office manager who never gets any ‘facetime’ with the employees.  But this applies to fraternity officers too.  The beginning of a new year is as good a time as any to finally rid your chapter of some questionable traditions.  Simply being present in a different way can make a big difference.

2. Communicate obsessively about:

— The challenges facing the organization and a frank and clear, step-by-step on what must be done.

— The fact that we’re all in this together, that our fates are correlated and that the only route to success is more transparency and more collaboration.

— What’s important — often forgotten, even in good times.

It’s so easy for chapter officers to get consumed by the day-to-day activities: submitting paperwork to the student activities office, completing annual reports, preparing for meetings and the list goes on.  But don’t forget about the important-but-not-urgent matters.  For instance, clarifying the vision and strategic goals of your chapter and including the members in this process.  Is it written down?  Posted in the chapter home?  Talked about at every meeting?

4. You are not alone. Abandon that susceptible ego, the dangerous delusion, that you alone can solve the problem or invent new strategies that will, with one wave of the wand, guarantee future success, that asking for help isn’t, er, manly.

There’s a common denominator between excellent chapters: they have excellent chapter advisors (and they actually utilize them).  It might be tough for some officers to admit, but you can’t do everything yourself.  So beginning this week, call your chapter advisors and invite them to lunch.  Stop by your Greek advisor’s office and say hello.  Tell them what’s going on and ask for some advice.

#4 Continued:

You have to quickly identify trusted colleagues within and others, outside the cocoon of the C-suite, for their advice. During crises, the tendency of top management is to circle the wagons.You must have a network of mavens and others whose experience and expertise can make a huge difference?

Sometimes people make mistakes, crises happen.  In such cases circling the wagons is one of the worst things you can do (remember, even excellent chapters make mistakes from time to time.  The difference is that they actually utilize their resources).  Don’t wait around for someone else–school administrators or the General Fraternity–to fix a problem for you.  Greek Life professionals are resources, not babysitters.  If you seek our advice to change something, we’ll drop everything to help.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Why Good People Make Bad Decisions

I’m currently re-reading The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. I’m still amazed with how relevant the book’s message can be to group culture and specifically fraternity and sorority life. Here are some excerpts from the introduction:

The Lucifer Effect is my attempt to understand the process of transformation at work when good or ordinary people do bad or evil things. We will deal with the fundamental question “What makes people go wrong?” But instead of resorting to a traditional religious dualism of good versus evil, of wholesome nature versus corrupting nurture, we will look at real people engaged in life’s daily tasks, enmeshed in doing their jobs, surviving within an often turbulent crucible of human nature. We will seek to understand the nature of their character transformations when they are faced with powerful situational forces.

When I first read the book, I was initially turned off by what I mistakenly thought was the author’s dismissal of personal responsibility. I falsely thought (before finishing the book) Zimbardo’s conclusion was that humans should not be held responsible for bad or evil behavior because we are only products of our group’s culture. But Zimbardo cleared up this misconception just a few pages into the book:

Throughout this book, I repeat the mantra that attempting to understand the situational and systemic contributions to any individual’s behavior does not excuse the person or absolve him of her from responsibility in engaging in immoral, illegal, or evil deeds.

And Zimbardo explains here how he concludes the book on a positive note, with a discussion of heroes:

We have come to think of our heroes as special, set apart from us ordinary mortals by their daring deeds of lifelong sacrifices. Here we recognize that such special individuals do exist, but that they are the exception among the ranks of heroes, the few who make such sacrifices. They are a special breed who organize their lives around a humanitarian cause, for example. By contrast, most others we recognize as heroes are heroes of the moment, of the situation, who act decisively when the call to service is sounded. So, The Lucifer Effect journey ends on a positive note by celebrating the ordinary hero who lives within each of us.

Tagged , ,