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The Art of Drawing Commitment from Students

By: Tim Elmore

Two senior leaders of university clubs spoke to me in August about the challenges they faced with their organizations. Both were recruiting prospective members from the students on campus, but both were disappointed. They couldn’t seem to keep committed members. The students either left because they had other options, or they just lost interest in the club. 

I believe the problem was in their approach to today’s students. 

I reminded them of the story of Reed Hastings, who took his idea for Netflix to the corporate executives at Blockbuster Video stores over twenty years ago. He suggested that the future of home entertainment was streaming videos and requiring people to pay a monthly subscription for access. Blockbuster didn’t see the merit in this new way of getting people to “sign up.” It was a bad decision on their part. Today—Netflix is thriving while Blockbuster stores have disappeared. 

I wonder if we are approaching a “Netflix Generation” of students with a “Blockbuster Style” of leadership. And they just aren’t signing up. 

Changing Our Approach to Recruit Students

Typically, when adult leaders want students to “join” their club, organization, or team, we approach recruitment differently than those students wish we would. We have an outdated sequence of priorities. Ours typically flow in this order:

  1. Believe what we believe. In other words, embrace our mission and core principles.
  2. Behave like we behave. Next, we want them to begin looking and acting like we do.
  3. Belong to our group. Once they implement these, then we allow them to officially join.

The fact is, today’s students may just see the issues in the opposite order. We offer “programs” but what they want and need are deep and trusting relationships. Generation Z has been programmed to death. They have sports programs thrown at them, they have YouTube and Amazon programs targeted at them and they have TV programs to watch. What they don’t experience is rich relationships and community. They often don’t feel they fit in or belong. 

Inclusivity has taken on a new meaning today. Everyone wants to belong to a “tribe,” but unlike past generations, tribes may not center around a set of beliefs or behaviors. While Boomer and Xer leaders still make behavior or belief their focus, Millennials and Generation Z see life differently. They often perceive older generations are merely cramming a set of beliefs down their throats. They often see older generations pushing for behavior modification, to make sure everyone looks right. We spend loads of time trying to get students to think like we think—when that may never completely happen. Our focus needs to change.

Tribes work differently for today’s emerging generations.  

They Want to Belong Before They Believe

Students don’t necessarily make decisions based on logic or data. I know professors, salespeople, staff, and campus ministers who’ve made the same mistake. They try to convince a young person about something before they build any sense of relationship, trust, or community. Students today would rather join a small affinity group and “belong” to this group, even before they embrace the beliefs of that group. Their basis for making decisions is more relational than logical. The focus is social more than rational. Author and research professor Brene Brown talks about the difference between “fitting in” and “belonging.” Fitting in means someone gives up part of their identity to merely adhere to the group’s shared beliefs; they’re pushed into a mold. Belonging means individuals share an affinity group, but each brings who they are to that group. They blend but they remain unique individuals. 

The fact is, we often fail to understand the connection between belief and belonging. 

Author James Clear explains the difficulty of this reality: “Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing someone to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.”

Once leaders establish “belonging” the issues of belief and behavior tend to follow.

Building a Team Today

So, how do we do this? It isn’t easy. Our organization, Growing Leaders, is experiencing the pains of getting this right even now. We have new team members who want to belong but bring a different set of priorities than our past team members. I believe the key is for the leaders to fully embrace the DNA of the organization. In other words, leaders must be aligned on just who the organization is and what they’ll focus on. Determine what is “core.” Guiding principles become key for the team. Then, these core leaders must build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of honest conversations about belonging. Leaders must welcome team members bringing their whole self to the team as long as it accelerates the fulfillment of the mission. And they must focus on enabling those new team members to see how they belong. They must be very flexible, especially at first. 

In order to accomplish this, leaders must offer various layers of opportunities for commitment. It will look like concentric circles. When someone new enters the group, allow for differences. Create spaces for them to put their toe in the water in the outer layer. Work on helping them feel they belong. As they move from an outer layer to an inner layer of commitment, look for that belonging to lead to aligned beliefs and behavior. But be careful. Don’t expect teammates to look like “identical twins,” but rather “cousins.” Same DNA, but different look. 

Those Blockbuster days are over. It’s time to stream our new recruits.

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The Art of Drawing Commitment from Students