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Creating Common Purpose in Fraternities

How do men’s organizations create shared values and purpose? Why is this important to clarify shared values? By using the Social Change Model of Leadership, an IFC or similar men’s cultural Greek communities can create this as a priority.

Creating Common Purpose in Fraternities

Recently, I spent a weekend as a group facilitator for a college Greek community. It was a great experience to meet some new students. It is always thrilling to engage students in exploring how values should lead their leadership. Even when I spend part of that time challenging the values that aren’t showing up in their work.

Perhaps its the fact that I have worked with fraternity students across the country for a number of years and, if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to tell many of their communities apart. And some of these fraternity community characteristics just confuse me, how they show up similarly across the country. You see, many of the men create hyper-competitive communities that value exhibiting ‘the best’ behavior. It’s always about the most worked-out men, the strongest men, the smartest men, the men who host the best parties.

This type of hyper-masculinity or often-called toxic masculinity can be very seductive for men trying to find their place on campus.

What are Hyper-masculinity and Toxic Masculinity?

First, a couple of academic definitions. You have probably heard these terms tossed around in the media, social and otherwise. However it’s important to know where these terms originated and what they actually describe. In short, not all masculinity is harmful, but some performance of it is.

Mosher and Sirkin (1984) were two of the first researchers to explore hyper-masculinity and defined hyper-masculinity or the “macho personality” as consisting of three variables:

  • callous sexual attitudes toward women
  • the belief that violence is manly
  • the experience of danger as exciting

Sanchez and associates (2009) believed men are unable to meet designated masculine criteria in their community, it can oftentimes lead to feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and overall psychological distress. Also, some may believe that an inability to live up to a certain gender role may jeopardize their social capital in their communities.

We need to feel comfortable calling this behavior what it is: toxic masculinity.

Men’s fraternal organizations are designed to share and train members on developing new social capital. However, men may feel compelled to portray these hyper-masculine traits as a way to demonstrate their feeling of belonging.

Wong and associates (2017) believed that some men adhered to traditionally masculine cultural norms (behaviors like risk-taking, violence, dominance, primacy of work, need for emotional control, desire to win, and pursuit of social status). As a result, these men tended to be more likely to experience psychological problems such as depression, stress, body image problems, substance abuse, and poor social functioning. This type of masculine behavior is typically described as toxic to the healthy development of a masculine identity. In the end, the behavior is contrary to the rituals and founding principles of our fraternal organizations.

Why Should Fraternity Leaders Care?

Men’s fraternal organizations should care about displaying these behaviors. However, men will continue to adopt them believing that this is exactly what the chapter is looking for in order to compete for social standing within the community.

Therefore this desire to be ‘more than’ is ultimately harmful to the men, and those in the community that are impacted by their behavior. In short, it’s time that fraternities began to look at how to address this behavior both within their community and among their college communities.


Understanding Common Purpose

The Social Change Model of Leadership describes Common Purpose as one of the seven levels to achieve social change in a community. Common Purpose is “described as “work with shared aims and values. It facilitates the group’s ability to engage in collective analysis of the issues at hand and the task to be undertaken.”

The Social Change Model further describes that “[c]ommon purpose is best achieved when all of the members in the group share in the vision and participate actively in articulating the purpose and goals of the leadership development activity. Recognizing the common purpose and mission of the group helps to generate the high level of trust that any successful collaboration requires (1996).”

So, in order for men’s fraternal organizations functioning in a community to create change around the common purpose of addressing hyper-masculinity and toxic masculinity need to generate high levels of trust. Finally, they also need to actively articulate their goals and purpose of the leadership they ask their member organizations to engage in.

Sounds simple enough. Right?

The Gilmour Girls know that it sounds simple, and it can be, too.


The Bad and Largely Good News

First, the bad news. Fraternities, separate or together, are highly values-aligned organizations (Johnson, Johnson, Dugan, 2015). Now, sometimes those values reflect their (inter)national or local founding documents or sometimes just the character of the men in those immediate communities. But Johnson and associates also found that men’s organizations, whether IFC or cultural-based, were not as skilled as women to take or understand another person’s point of view (2015). Likewise, Dugan, Komives and Associates (2009) found that among college men, men in fraternities had the lowest capacity for change as a leadership behavior.

Now, the good news. Men in fraternities demonstrate high levels of commitment and congruence. For instance, when we work directly with men and emphasize the importance of values, men will respond. It really means that the emphasis on change needs to be deliberate and focused on men, first.

In my experience, it also needs to be in-group behavior. Sanchez and associates (2009) were on to something about how men need to know that they can still be part of a men’s community without risking the social capital that these types of masculine behaviors typically give them. In other words, they still show they can compete with others and demonstrate the best of their personal character without needing to engage in risky, misogynistic behaviors. What is is replaced with is largely up to the community to decide, and this is where the men can be leaders among their peers.


What Can A Fraternity Do?

I have to admit my own biases, as a former executive director for a NIC-affiliated Fraternity with chapters represented in college IFCs across the east coast. I have seen and witnessed the worst, toxic behavior from the men in my fraternity and with the fraternities I encountered with my work. And I have also seen the best behavior exhibited by these same men, showing exactly how to live values of brotherhood without regrettable behavior. Here are three things that any and all fraternities can do to change the culture of their chapter and within their fraternal community.

Set Expectations and Hold People Accountable

In her book Fraternity, Alexandra Robbins recounts a speech given by a chapter president to his new members:

“We’ve worked really hard to build a reputation as a house of nice guys. If you endanger that reputation, you’ll immediately be kicked to the curb,” Oliver told the pledges. “That’s not the kind of people we want. We’re not the douchey frat house. We’re not here to ‘get bitches and get fucked up.’ We’re here to learn how to grow up a little bit. And with that comes learning how to be a nice human being; how to look out for each other, for guests, and for girls; and how to properly treat girls. If you’re consistently nice and respectful, you’re going to build a good reputation, and that’s going to help you a lot in life.”

by Alexandra Robbins, The Atlantic, February 8, 2019

Robbins followed the experiences of Oliver (a pseudonym) and other fraternity men for two years to write her book. She shared that while toxic behavior was exhibited, more often there were people like Oliver who set expectations that challenged these behaviors. Also, these chapters specifically promote their friendships as “brotherhoods,” seeming to promise the kind of supportive relationships that could alleviate a freshman’s separation anxiety, loss, and grief. Finally, by giving men the permission and setting the expectation that men need to show their emotions, these chapters rely less on toxic behaviors to overcome these emotions and instead replace them with healthy, natural expressions.

And if the men don’t, ask them to leave. And by ask, I mean use whatever method is recommended for conduct unbecoming a fraternity man in your organization. Complicit agreement with these behaviors starts by doing nothing to remove the people who are doing them.

Offer Alternatives to Competition

Nearly all of the IFC-affiliated chapters I worked with emphasized competition as a way to determine the Big Man on Campus – whether through public displays during rush week or private Greek Week events centered around drinking games. There are IFC-sponsored intramural sports teams, competition-based philanthropy events, even prizes for Christmas light displays.

And yet, I have hardly seen values-driven leadership programming for new and continuing fraternity members. Few, if any, career-based programming to share resources among the community. Finally, irregular mental or men’s focused health programming, unless its a response to a campus crisis or a fraternity-affiliated partner.

We can do better. We can still offer the competition, but in the words of Ms. Janet Jackson, I still ask these IFCs: “What have you done for me lately?

We can and should expect our IFC councils to promote and provide leadership, not just engage in and perpetuate the competition side of fraternity affiliation. That is, literally, so last century.

Engage in Healthy Risk

We often associate unhealthy risks with fraternity life. This includes excessive drinking and drug abuse, having multiple sexual partners, poor nutrition to support body dysmorphia. In short, to talk about these issues in public, we need chapters to engage the risk of being public about what most chapters want to keep private. And yet, college men over-estimate drinking behaviors among their peers. They believe that their peers expect them to engage in these behaviors. Even if they didn’t before college.

Therefore, chapters and councils need to draw attention to these unhealthy, toxic behaviors that have been associated with fraternity life, since research tells us that most men just believe their supposed to. This could be through passive social norm campaigns or by championing gender equity behaviors that challenge male privilege.

All of these are risky because they put the reputation of the chapters and the community at risk. That much is true – but to what end? End risky behavior that affects men developing healthy expectations? Stop fraternity men from believing their peers don’t feel the same as they do? Create an inclusive community that values living fraternal values over hyper-masculinity?


We need to begin asking our fraternal men’s communities to showcase leadership around common purpose. They can start by defining the role of fraternity men living free of toxic or hyper-masculinity. I firmly believe that leadership is an expression of our values. I also believe we need to showcase other values other than those that easily seduce men for literally no reason other than they believe they are supposed to.


References

The Atlantic:, “Fraternities Can Push Boys Toward a Terrible Sort of Masculinity—Or Help Them Resist It”


Academic Citations

Higher Education Research Institute [HERI]. (1996). A social change model of leadership development: Guidebook version III. College Park, MD: National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs.

Dugan, J. P., Komives, S. R., & Associates. (2009). Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership 2009: Institutional reports. College Park, MD: National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs.

Mosher, D.L. & Serkin, M., (1984). “Measuring a macho personality constellation”. Journal of Research in Personality18 (2): 150–163. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(84)90026-6.

Sánchez, F. Greenberg, S.; Liu, W. & Vilain, E.(January 2009). “Reported Effects of Masculine Ideals on Gay Men”Psychology of Men & Masculinity10 (1): 73–87. doi:10.1037/a0013513ISSN1524-9220PMC2902177PMID20628534.

Wong, Y. J. et al. (2017). “Meta-analyses of the relationship between conformity to masculine norms and mental health-related outcomes” (PDF). Journal of Counseling Psychology64 (1): 80–93. doi:10.1037/cou0000176.

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