Improve Your Relationship with Staff

by Eileen White Jahn, Ph.D.

Having a hard time telling the counselors from the campers? Are your staff too dependent on you? Are you mediating as many petty fights between your staff as you are with the campers?

It is your right to expect mature behavior from your staff because they are your employees. It is your responsibility, too, for a couple of reasons.

First, immature staff behavior jeopardizes camper safety and camper discipline. If you have a staff member who thinks it’s acceptable to sit on the bottom of the pool in a lawn chair, you will have campers trying the same. If it’s acceptable for the staff to curse and fight, why not the campers?

Second, camp is as valuable a development process for the staff as it is for the campers. Camps are first and foremost a place for youth development. Many of your staff are youths, too. Even if you are paying them to do a job, they are still young people under your care who deserve your guidance. Actually, often the counselors are the very campers who you developed. The staff progression is a logical extension of the camper progression.

You need to look at your management style to see if you are inadvertently fostering the immature behavior you encounter. If you feel you have an unacceptable incidence of immature behavior among your staff, ask yourself the following questions to see if you are somehow encouraging it:

  • Are you inadvertently encouraging dependencies or discouraging independence?
  • Do you act childish yourself?
  • Are you fostering a repressive atmosphere that leads to regressive behavior?
  • Are you unclear in your expectations?

Encourage Independence among Staff

Do staff members fall apart when you’re not there? Are you the "mom" and "dad" whose presence is necessary to make sure things run correctly? In my first year as a camp director, if I left the camp for any reason, I was paged constantly and met upon my return with wails of "We didn’t know what to do without you!" Although I would never discourage staff members from paging me, many of the decisions and crises were things they could have dealt with themselves. In a way, it’s flattering to feel so needed, but to accept this neediness would be to encourage this unnecessary dependency and the avoidance of decision making.

Coach staff to make appropriate decisions
A good camp should be able to run without you (for a while at least). Work with your staff to teach them how to make decisions; show them how and why you handle things. Don’t just dish out decisions and ultimatums; explain the rationale behind them and invite input. If a particular crisis can be turned into a learning opportunity, turn to staff members and ask them what the course of action should be. In this way, they learn what to do when you are not around. Set limits on their decision-making/action-taking authority (such as all communications to parents must go through you first), but once those limits are clear, give staff members the freedom to manage a situation.

On the other hand, it’s easy to discourage mature behavior inadvertently through your reaction to their decisions. If a staff member makes a decision that isn’t exactly the one you would make, try not to get upset. If you do, this teaches them to take all decisions to you. If a decision is acceptable but just not the way you would have handled the situation, let it go. If it is unacceptable or harmful, step in and lead the staff member to the better resolution.

Anecdote: Encouraging initiative
For example, one night we were having a terrible time getting the coals going for an all-camp barbecue. Knowing dinner would be delayed, I was about to send a message to the upper staff in cabin areas to hold tight and not blow the dinner bugle. Then I realized that all the upper staff were off or with me. Knowing that there was no one in authority to blow the bugle, we were free to finish our fire-starting. A short while later, we heard a distant bugle and forthwith the entire camp marched down. My first reaction was anger ("Who told them to blow the bugle?"), but I quickly realized that the person who took initiative and blew the bugle at dinner time should be recognized and thanked. That is the type of behavior camp directors want to encourage.

You Are a Role Model for Staff

Like it or not, the director and upper staff are role models for the rest of the staff. They look to your behavior to see what is acceptable.

Your behavior sets the tone
One director I knew was a talented comedian, but he never turned it off. He had a joke for every situation, usually at the expense of others. I’ll never forget the sight of him in the height of a medical emergency involving a teenage staff member. He quickly retrieved the health form to bring to the ambulance, but took the time to trumpet to all within hearing the fact that the counselor was on a bed-wetting medication. His lack of discretion sent a message to his staff that there were no bounds, and they acted accordingly.

Another camp director friend of mine was tolerant of raiding and pranks, mostly because he liked to indulge in this behavior himself. He would sneak around at night and set up jokes and tricks and then laugh at the staff members who got caught in them. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand that he was responsible when staff members would go overboard in their retaliation or when they didn’t listen when he said enough was enough. He was sending his staff a signal that it was all right to act like this because the director did. If you play practical jokes, so will your staff.

Another director was famous for his tantrums. If a meal was late or a golf cart improperly parked, he would track down the offender and throw a full-blown, expletive-not-deleted fit. If you throw tantrums, you’re teaching your staff that tantrums are acceptable. If you bully the staff under you, they will bully those under them. Examine your behavior, and try to set a good example for your staff.

Treat Your Staff as Responsible Adults

If you expect staff members to act like children and see your job as catching them and punishing them, you may be fostering a repressive atmosphere. In management circles, a manager who believes that his staff will goof-off and misbehave the minute he stops watching them is called a Theory X manager. Coercion, discipline, and threats of punishment are often this manager’s main motivational tools. This creates a repressive atmosphere that spawns immature behavior.

Staff want respect and guidance
On the other hand, if you expect the staff to act like adults, treat them like adults. Be a Theory Y manager who believes that people want trust and responsibility and will live up to it. The director’s job is to guide staff, not catch them. Confront transgressions as they occur with the assumption that your corrections are guidance. Being vigilant and running a tight ship are imperative, but they can be done without paranoia and suspicion (not to mention constant demoralizing threats).

Anecdote: Paranoia fosters repressive behavior
I had a colleague who screamed at his staff and threatened them constantly. Everything and everyone was suspect. He was sure that he had to watch them constantly, and he attributed evil motives to everything. Once, he threw a fit over a couple of bent forks. He saw it as an act of subversion (as opposed to cheap eating implements that may have been inadvertently mangled by the dishwasher). He lined up the staff and ranted and raved and threatened to fire the entire lot if they didn’t turn in the villain who was bending forks. He threatened to put all the forks away and let people eat with their hands.

Guess how they responded to this humiliation? That’s correct, mangled fork mania. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy where paranoia ruled. If you act like you expect your staff to misbehave, the minute you turn your back, they probably will. If you are so suspicious of your staff that they know they’ll never earn your trust, why should they try?

Set Clear Expectations

People are not mind-readers, and young people especially are not always as perceptive as adults would like them to be. Instead of lamenting about how they act, state very clearly how you expect staff to act and then hold them to it. For example, say, "I expect you to respect the property of the camp" or "I expect you to settle your differences maturely." Stating your expectations shouldn’t occur just once in orientation sessions or staff meetings. It is most effective in constant coaching and pre-event statements.

For example, before parents arrive, tell staff members you expect them to act courteously and professionally. Right before important ceremonies, state that they should act with appropriate respect and awe. By clearly and repeatedly stating your expectations, you are setting goals for staff members to live up to, and most of them will.

Anecdote: Attitude is everything
We had a disastrous square dance once. The staff sat around groaning about how corny it was. I was furious, but instead of giving up an activity I knew could work, I tried a different approach the next time. Right before the activity, I pulled the staff together and explained to them how much their behavior could jeopardize the campers’ fun. I clearly stated that I expected them to show enthusiasm, to get up and encourage the kids to dance, and to dance themselves. That night they were fabulous, hoking it up and "yee-haw"-ing. The campers had a great time and after that staff rated square dances as their favorite activity.

By focusing on your management style, you may put a big dent in immature behavior among staff. Treat them like adults. Treat them with respect; be demanding and fair. Clearly tell them what you want. Act like an adult yourself. Encourage initiative, and don’t punish the mistakes that come with learning to make decisions. By creating a mature atmosphere of respect, you’ll find your staff much more willing to take on a responsible role.

Eileen White Jahn, Ph.D., is a veteran camp director and a full-time professor of management at St. Joseph’s College on Long Island, New York. She also teaches for the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Originally published in the 2001 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.