How Cultural Decline Kills ANY Organization


What does a college fraternity and leadership culture have in common?


I pledged a fraternity mid-way through my college career. I had gotten to know some of the brothers and one of the things that compelled me to join was their focus on leadership.

Unlike most other fraternal groups, ours was a local chapter that wanted to break the stigma associated with typical fraternities and give back to the campus and community. Instead of hazing, our pledge process was more of a military academy, designed to foster leadership and brotherhood. And in order to be considered a member, you have to be involved in a position of leadership in the college or community.

What started out as a strong culture for the first 10 years quickly unraveled as time went on. Our standards started to slip in membership, and our commitment to excellence waned. New members were more of the stereotypical frat boy, and their values did not match those from the early years.

A few brothers, myself included, rang the warning bells to the others. But we became the minority, and eventually we lost our standing with the campus administration and eventually our charter was revoked.

Any organization – social, professional, community – can suffer the same fate as our fraternity did. It all hinges on culture, and ensuring that mechanisms are in place to perpetuate those values from year to year.

Here are some takeaways learned on how to protect your organizations culture:

  • Define your culture to the detail. When establishing cultural values, make sure your can project long-term what may pull the organization away from them. Have your values be clear without any interpretation for error or ambiguity.
  • Drill down culture, constantly, at every stage. Our pledge process was extremely good at this, for a while. Then when the pledgemasters allowed certain behaviors to creep into the initiation phase, we started to lose our identity. It starts at the hiring process
  • Be jealous and vigilant for culture. Organizations need to run every action and strategy through their culture machine to see if it holds up. Programs or thinking that drift away from defined vlaues will lead the group off into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory.
  • Measure everyone by the high cultural standard. Some of the rushees (pre-pledge applicants) were not a good fit for us, but because they were popular or well-liked they were voted in. No one checked their leadership credentials – many stretched the truth to gain entrance, or did not maintain a certain GPA. They were kept because we didn’t want to offend them. People who do not reflect your values, especially the non-neogtiable ones,  should not be allowed to wave your banner and join your team.
  • Make no excuse for standing firm to your culture. It’s always better to have a small, committed group than a large organization that isn’t fully on board. Be unapologetic for making a stand. If your culture is important, the pain of standing firm is more than worth it.
  • Listen to those voices that call for culture. Some of those who voiced their concern were discounted and drowned out in ridicule and jest. By ignoring those who offer sage advise to stay true to your core, you have already stated that your culture is of no value.
  • Instill checks and balances to preserve the core. Majority rule and democratic process are great tools – rightly used. But any organization, small or large, needs a strong internal check and balance system to ensure their culture is maintained with integrity. Whether a vested committee, outside consultant, or other objective means, they are the last line of defense to preserve what has been worked hard to establish in your groups.

One side note – We did have some moments of recognizing our slide and we had a resurgence of commitment for a while before our charter was pulled permanently. Since then, many of the brothers have reached out and worked hard with the campus to set up programs and goodwill, in line with our earlier values. There remains a strong sense of community with the group through social media and frequent reunions. But what is and what could have been are vastly different and a reminder for all to stay guarded in your values no matter what the cost.

(image: morguefile/lisaolonynko)

About Paul LaRue

My goal - To encourage you to lead & influence others with positive impact.

Posted on March.25.2015, in Leadership. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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