Leveraging Relationships to Facilitate Positive Culture Change

What can enhance the transformational experience of fraternity and sorority life (FSL) for undergraduate students? Relationships. New relationships can change a college experience for an isolated freshman student. Students from an unprivileged background may benefit in a community inundated with privilege (e.g., social capital) needed for upward social mobility. Empowering community members to develop passion for a new cause (e.g., philanthropy) occurs  through relationships. We all know relationships are the foundation of families, classrooms, groups, sports teams, organizations, and the fabric of our our society. At Cor, we do not overlook this critical fact, but rather use the science of relationships to improve our ability to facilitate positive culture change.


Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a statistical analysis based on graph theory that represents social actors as nodes and their relationships as ties. For example, individuals may be connected through ties of mutual influence (e.g., leadership, power imbalance at school, or roles at work). Groups could be nodes, connected via ties of liking or disliking. Have you ever wanted to know what group (dis)likes each other? Imagine seeing how information exchange patterns (e.g., emails, posts, texts) linked multiple people. The image (to the right) is a representation of social network data in a sociogram. Social actors (e.g., circles in the sociogram) could be represented as different colors because the individuals belong to different groups (e.g., individuals working in marketing, sales, human resources). The size of the circles could be altered based on an actor’s “influence” in the overall network (e.g., larger the node, larger their influence). The color of the lines could be altered based on type of relationship (e.g., like, dislike).

We recommend the use of SNA to all stakeholders who may implement our programming because  it may enhance the effectiveness of our programs. For example, a study by conducted by researchers at Yale, Princeton, and Rutgers compared school interventions using SNA to identify high-status influencers in middle schools relative to interventions that didn’t target specific students as change agents. The study showed using high-status influencers had a significant decrease in student conflict reports (decrease of 30%) and improved school climate (Paluck, Shepherd, Aronow, 2016).

We apply the same science and approach for our FSL program—High Influencer Training (HIT). The HIT program uses SNA to identify high-status influencers in a fraternity or sorority. We then motivate and train these high-status organizational members to facilitate positive culture change based on organizational change theory and prosocial-organizational behaviors. Our training covers developing organizational change strategies and teaching participants how to utilize reinforcement and rewards to facilitate behavior change, to the promoting bystander intervention related to a range of risk behaviors (e.g., sexual assault, binge drinking, hazing) among organizational members.

Why utilizing high-status influencers is vital for FSL interventions:

Reason 1: Position does not equal influence

In my first job following ungrad, and then as a graduate assistantship, I worked in Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) for three years. During the time, I observed FSL professionals relying heavily on positional (formal) leaders within a chapter to lead organizational change. This ubiquitous strategy is based on the assumption that formal leaders inherit a degree of power and influence with their formal position in the organization. By associating positional power with influence, we spend significant less time with the “invisible” leaders within an organization. Research shows that these “invisible” leaders may hold more influence because an individual’s network of relationship holds more organizational influence than an individual’s formal position in an organization (Simpson, Farrell, Oriña, & Rothman, 2015). What happens when an influential member becomes an “invisible” leader? Their potential to create positive organizational outcomes may never be realized.

Our HIT program utilizes SNA to identify the most influential positional and “invisible” leaders.

Reason 2: Influence does not equal positive influence

Holding the assumption that influential organizational members have a positive impact on their organizations is dangerous. Such an assumption fails to recognize and respect the power of negative influencers. In fraternities and sororities, it is the high-status negative influencers who encourage and perpetuate a harmful fraternity and sorority culture. In fact, the most dangerous chapter member is the negative informal influencer. Not only are they “invisible” to FSL professionals, but their influence can negate or reverse any positive efforts to develop leaders who want to benefit their chapter or community.

By using SNA to identify the most influential organizational members, all influencers—both positive and negative, formal and informal—are included in the positive organizational culture change process. We believe identifying and intervening on negative influencers is essential if you want to change harmful fraternity and sorority life culture. Negative influencers can be empowered to leverage their influence for positive organizational change.

Reason 3: Always strive to improve programming

It is our belief time can be saved and resources maximized if FSL professionals  use SNA in their practice. Is sifting through participant applications the most effective selection process for choosing the right students for a program? Are mandatory, all-member presentations with motivational speakers, an effective and efficient culture-change approach? Is increasing the number of students you reach in a presentation more important than getting the right students for creating change?

If the answer to any of the previous questions is, “no,” shouldn’t we be searching for a solution? For five years,  we searched for the answer and we believe SNA is a critical component of the solution.


Paluck, P. L., Shepherd, H., Aronow, P. M. (2016). Changing climates of conflict: A social network experiment in 56 schools. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 113(3), 566-571.

Simpson, J. a, Farrell, A. K., Oriña, M. M., & Rothman, A. J. (2015). Power and social influence in relationships. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 393–420).