The Factors Behind Complacency & How to Re-Energize Your Organization

You’ve started the school year. You’re enthusiastic about what your organization can accomplish. You’ve spent the summer planning out your chapter’s schedule of events, and you feel like it’s your year to win the big awards on campus. However, that little devil on your shoulder quickly reminds you of what it was like last year … and the year before that … and the year before that. The chapter starts the year with a ton of enthusiasm, only to find it disappear through a gradual sense of group apathy. Eventually, it just becomes the 80/20 rule: 20% of the chapter does 80% of the work.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Hopefully not, but it’s all too real for many fraternity and sorority chapters at the start of the school year. There are a variety of reasons why apathy and complacency become a driving force for a lack of productivity, and most of it comes from the research behind cognitive biases. (If you’ve never hear the term cognitive bias, it basically means our errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions.) The trick to solving the problem as a chapter leader is first to understand what biases are at play and why they occur. Then you can create solutions to curb their prevalence. Biases are largely unavoidable, but they can be managed with the right attention to detail and a desire to engage each member in the organization.


Framing Effect

What is it? Drawing different conclusions from the same information, depending on how the information is presented.

How to spot it: When you’re sharing key messages with your chapter and there are vastly different perspectives on the information.

How to handle it: What’s said isn’t always what’s heard — that’s communication 101. Your goal is to clearly articulate what you want to convey and be curious when people view it completely different. Ask what they heard and how you can clarify before it becomes a bigger issue. People that are confused will find others who are confused and potentially compound the issue. Your job is to eliminate that confusion as quickly as possible.

Hyperbolic Discounting

What is it? A preference for decisions that provide more immediate kickback, rather than decisions with long-term benefit, leading to inconsistent decision-making over time.

How to spot it: When members would rather do what’s most “fun” right now instead of thinking of the potential consequences. This could involve planning socials, spending the budget, risk management issues, etc.

How to handle it: It’s easy for people to choose the short-term over the long-term — they get to see the immediate result. The job of a leader is to constantly remind the chapter of the chapter’s vision for the future and how each daily decision plays into that vision becoming a reality. It also involves consistently challenging members to think about what could be accomplished if you play the long game vs. accepting the short-term result. Use your chapter or fraternity/sorority advisors to help drive home this point.


What is it? The willingness to do the opposite of what someone tells you out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to restrain your freedom of choice.

How to spot it: When members rebel against authority based on the very principle of the protest. When members find ways to negate the credibility of headquarters or an advisor at every turn because they believe they are attempting to control the actions of the chapter.

How to handle it: The power of our organizations is that they are student-led. Sure, advisors should be present to serve as the bumpers of the organization, but they don’t ultimately make the decisions — that’s your job. As a result, it can be easy to resist the direction of others. If you feel this phenomenon is making its presence known in your organization, your job as a leader is to ask questions and figure out the why of each decision. Communicate the why to your membership. It’s natural for opposition to occur when a lack of transparency exists as to why decisions are being made.

Risk Compensation/Peltzman Effect

What is it? The tendency to take greater risks when perceived safety increases.

How to spot it: If members are willing to put their reputations on the line for an idea that might be controversial, you might have a positive level of risk compensation. If members are afraid to share new ideas because of the way they will be treated by members, you might be experiencing the opposite.

How to handle it: Creating safety in any organization is critical for cultivating an environment where members are invested in the development of new ideas and projects. Without the feeling of safety from the organization, members will disengage, not participate, or even worse, leave. Your job as a leader is to publicly and privately value individuals who are willing to be bold and courageous. That includes protecting the whistleblowers who are willing to call out unhealthy behaviors and embracing the members willing to go out on a limb and propose bold changes. Visual examples of protection slowly create a culture of safety, which eliminates the Peltzman Effect.

There are many other cognitive biases that drive the behavior of your members. If you are interested in more research on the topic, I encourage you to find a book on social psychology at your local library or spend some time researching online. It will assist you as you attempt to lead your organization in the best way possible.


Kyle Hickman received his bachelor’s degree in sociology-anthropology from Lycoming College and his Master of Science with an emphasis in college teaching and a focus on social psychology from Texas A&M University-Commerce. He currently serves as the Senior Director of Member Development for the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity and worked previously on college campuses in leadership development programs and fraternity/sorority life.
Kyle has spent his entire professional career creating learning experiences for young people through teaching, curriculum design, and facilitation. He sharpens his skills as a lead facilitator for North-American Interfraternity Conference programs (UIFI, Launch, IMPACT), CAMPUSPEAK, and LaunchPoint Solutions. As a social psychology nerd, he enjoys helping people understand the underlying factors that drive behavior in group environments. He believes social psychology is at the root of all organizational change efforts.
He currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his partner and their three pets. You can usually find him between the pipes on the hockey rink, on the baseball field, or in the movie theater enjoying the latest film.



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