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Young Professionals: Coworker to Supervisor
You finally got it — the big promotion! Along with this recognition of your talents comes more pay, perhaps a coveted year-round position, and being entrusted with more responsibility. As you walk into your first staff meeting in your new position, you suddenly realize that everyone is looking at you and anxiously anticipating your first words as a supervisor. Knowing how your role in the camp and your relationship with coworkers will change, helps you navigate the territory of being a new supervisor.
As the title "From Coworker to Supervisor" implies, the promotion creates not just a change in job description but a change in relationships. This is a process fraught with uncertainty — amid the hearty backslaps and handshakes (and are those even sincere?) are those unfriendly stares.
There are four possible negative responses from former coworkers, including: 1) envy; 2) avoidance; 3) denigration (verbally disparaging the person promoted); and 4) active interference. Most likely, "these four responses are not the result of malicious intent but are predictable hardwired reactions capable of occurring in every human being." (See Michael Shelton's article, "The Perils of Promotion," Camping Magazine, July/August 2001.)
Envy and negative comments will dissipate if other staff members are convinced that you are the most qualified person for the position. If your supervisor hasn't already done so, ask him/her to make clear to everyone the hiring process for the position, your qualifications that stood out from the field, and a clear job description (i.e., certain measurable requirements: must be twenty-one, two years college, certification from a national organization in at least two program areas, etc.).
If you are encountering a bevy of gossip, rumors, and downright opposition, you have a right to respectfully confront those who are making it difficult for you to do your job. If you have tried talking directly to someone with no resolution, or the rumors have already gotten out of hand, don't be afraid to ask for help from your supervisor to address the problem on a larger basis. Working together, you and your supervisor can help establish clear boundaries and positive communication.
Even in the best of circumstances and surrounded by well-wishers, be sure to keep the lines of communication open with your new supervisees. Former coworkers may be reluctant to share information with you now that you are their supervisor. Set aside time each day or week (depending on the number of people under your charge) to give each person your undivided attention. Your former coworkers are more likely to tell you the truth about concerns that they have (i.e., micromanaging, preferential treatment, etc.) when you speak to them one-on-one for at least twenty minutes.
If you find you need to keep these meeting times more relaxed and regular, they can be combined with an activity, such as the new program director shooting some arrows with the archery specialist, or asking a supervisee to walk with you as you go around to the cabin units to sing goodnight. In particular, reach out to those who have been avoiding you or who just haven't yet gotten a chance to know you very well. As a result, your supervisees will know that you are spreading your time, attention, and energy in equal amounts amongst everyone you supervise.
Personal relationships are at the core of the camp community. When supervisors maintain friendly relationships with their staff, they become more willing to receive feedback and to work harder; they "feel connected to you and to camp and thus become invested in your mission (Thurber 2002)." At the same time, supervisors need to maintain some form of "professional distance" in order to make objective decisions regarding their supervisees. When those you supervise are former coworkers, and possibly close friends, it becomes more difficult to balance the personal and the professional.
Some new supervisors go overboard in trying to establish an "authoritative leadership relationship with their staff (Thurber 2002)." In the TV series M*A*S*H, whenever the commanding officer left camp, the XO Frank Burns would declare, "We're finally going to have some order around here." Needless to say, his routine of early morning calisthenics and constant yelling was not well-received. The temptation to "Go Frank Burns" on your new charges is especially hard to resist if you're replacing an under performing supervisor.
A more likely scenario, however, is the new supervisor that promises friends that "nothing will change between us." It's important to acknowledge that you have a new professional duty that may change relationships with coworkers, both on and off the job. Some organizations have anti-nepotism clauses in their personnel guidelines, prohibiting you from supervising someone to whom you're related. Be aware of any conflict of interest you may have (e.g., supervising someone you're dating or share an apartment with) and be open with that person about setting clear boundaries between personal and professional issues.
In your new position, you may run into several areas that cause personal ethical dilemmas. You might be privileged to sensitive information about other staff, troubled campers, or the state of the organization — information that you need to hold in confidence, even around those with whom you previously shared everything; professional duty must take precedence over personal loyalty, especially when the welfare of campers is at stake. You may find yourself in the unenviable position of having to make dismissal decisions or to publicly support another supervisor who does; as long as these decisions are made in the best interest of the campers and the camp mission, and carried out with professionalism and integrity, you may not earn popularity, but you will earn respect.
The higher up you are in an organization, the more people are watching your every move. Even subtle facial expressions are watched with close scrutiny by the people you're supervising — they may think you disapprove of their job performance, when you really just discovered that you got mustard on your favorite shirt at lunchtime. Be aware of your tone of voice and be sure to say "please." Michael Brandwein's term for this is the "Pass-Down Principle (PDP)": "Basically, the pass-down principle says that the way administrators work with staff and campers becomes a model for how staff will work with the children (Brandwein 2002)."
As well as being a stellar role model, how you supervise your staff will influence how your staff supervises the campers. You may have been the world's best cabin leader, but your role is not to tell other cabin leaders how to do it exactly as you did — rather, coach them in finding their own most effective methods and unique style.
Balancing changing personal and professional relationships is a life-long journey. Your transition from coworker to supervisor is a tremendous learning opportunity. By keeping the lines of communication open with your new supervisees, you will open the door to helping them develop their own leadership skills.
Gretchen Vaughn, an active member of ACA's Young Professionals, is the resident camp director of Flying 'G' Ranch for Girl Scouts — Mile Hi Council. She has worked at resident camps, day camps, and outdoor education centers for the past twelve years.
Originally published in the 2006 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.