Why Your Staff Doesn’t Bring Things to You, and One Thing that Might Help Them Do So
How do we empower summer camp staff to actually talk to us?
Staff members stopped talking to me.
I was unaware of how unapproachable I was, just like most unapproachable people.
Now, this is a natural fact of life in most employee/employer relationships, and to some degree, we'll have to accept it. But it just doesn't totally feel like summer camp.
And having staff members who can't approach us creates even more problems down the road, of course. They'll tend to not turn to us for help, they won't challenge our ideas, and they may not stand up for themselves if we've accidentally given them too much work, or put them in the kitchen when we said in an interview we wouldn't, or whatever else.
They'll still feel these ways, of course. They'll just tell their friends and confidants. Or maybe they'll complain loudly about it in the staff lounge. Sometimes it will reach our ears pretty quickly, and other times we'll hear about it in the off season. Or not at all.
So how can we become more approachable? Let's dive in.
The Obstacles to Confrontation
When I first moved into a leadership role at Camp Johnsonburg ~13 years ago now, I took part in the most memorable team challenge activity I've ever been a part of.
The instructor had been hired from the outside, and he clearly knew his stuff. He was charismatic, well spoken, and handsome. He got our director team pumped up for a few hours of "team building," and brought us into the woods.
When we got out there, he climbed up into a ropes element (about 20 feet high), and told us to interlock our arms. We were going to start this off with a trust fall, he said.
The 8 of us (myself and 7 of my least muscle-bound friends) - theoretically the strongest leaders the camp had to offer - looked at each other with uncertainty.
And then we linked our arms.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
We murmured some assent.
"I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" he yelled.
"YEAH!" we responded. We knew what you were supposed to do when someone says they can't hear you.
He went to jump, and we all flinched. I could feel my now wife's hands tighten around mine.
He stopped himself. "Drop your arms," he said. "I'm coming down."
We all laughed nervously. Then we started the debrief.
"You were seriously going to let me jump from up there," he said. "I probably would have killed you! And myself, too. How was everyone feeling when I went to jump?"
We answered. Scared. Nervous. Confused.
"Then why the hell didn't you say something about it?"
We answered. We thought you knew what you were doing. You seemed so sure it was going to be okay. We thought maybe you knew something we didn't. We thought for sure you had done this before. You were in charge.
You were in charge.
"I was in charge. Saying "no" or asking "why?" or "is this safe?" are incredibly hard things to do when we're dealing with people who are in charge. What are the obstacles to confrontation, and how can we break them down?"
We debriefed after that for a solid 2 hours. Some people cried as we dredged up times in our past when we couldn't stand up for ourselves in the face of someone who we perceived had power over us.
We had behaved in a really scary way - blindly following authority to do something really unsafe, and it shook us up.
But it kind of shook us up in the best way ever.
Empathizing with Staff
To them, we're either Camp Legends (if we grew up at the camp) or some unknown quantity that's Very Clearly in Charge. Even the meekest among us are scary to our first time staff members.
So how do we handle this?
Well, for starters, I just do the above activity during staff training. I do the same debrief that we did - talking about all the obstacles to confrontation, and discuss how darn dangerous it is to blindly follow authority.
And then, in no uncertain terms, I let them know that this applies to our relationship as well.
I let them know that, of course, I have their and the camp's best interests at heart. But some times I am going to have some BAD IDEAS. I list some - I once ran an "ice cube toss," that had 40 campers line up across from 40 other campers and throw ice cubes back and forth. After one round, the place looked like a Civil War scene. I really wish someone would have pointed out to me before hand what an insane thing it was to do.
We talked openly and honestly about how many things can go wrong during camp if we aren't able to talk with one another openly and honestly. Feelings get hurt. Your job will be worse. The whole thing just tears at the seams, and sometimes it breaks down.
It also applies horizontally, of course. Which is to say that, many times, they're going to need to healthily confront one another when they aren't meeting one another's expectations. Strategizing about how those conversations should look is a separate activity and discussion altogether, but truly convincing them that these conversations SHOULD happen is where it all begins.
I'll then let them know: A few more times during staff training, I'm going to do something that I think is unsafe, or generally a terrible idea. I'll also throw out a few ideas that I think are wrong or bad. I want to see who here is going to internalize today's activity, and call me on it.
Getting in our Confrontation Repetitions
When we get to the end of staff training, we've talked and laughed and thought about the idea of healthy confrontation so much that, for many, it becomes second nature. We all have the memorable touchstone of me standing up on a huge wall, ready to jump down on them. We even refer to it - "You guys are looking at me like I'm about to jump off a wall and land on your heads. What's up?"
Developing any new habit essentially requires two steps:
1) Be persuaded that the habit is actually worthwhile.
2) Practice it until it becomes second nature.
This activity has worked really well for me to accomplish both of these, and the results were great. It wasn't a silver bullet or anything - there were still plenty of counselors who didn't bring their problems with me to me, or their problems with others to them. But it moved the needle, and it created cultural momentum around actually talking to one another.
When it comes to training summer camp staff, a lot of times, we're just planting seeds. This activity, and these conversations, have planted some very healthy seeds in the minds of the young people I've worked with.
And by the way! We put whole staff training videos and materials for sessions you can lead inside of Go Camp Pro. Go check em out!
What do you say? How do you help camp staff see you as more approachable? I've still got a LONG way to go on this one!