Does what we do to motivate our staff match what the experts and research say about motivation? Many experts say that what we call motivation is not truly motivation but rather morale boosting. They are probably correct, except my experience tells me that if you build morale, you positively impact motivation. If your staff are having fun, feeling supported, and learning, aren’t you helping them do a better job and in turn won’t they deliver a better summer season for your campers? The time spent motivating staff provides many unseen dividends.
How Do We Do This?
As I look at the fresh, young, enthusiastic faces of the people we have hired I wonder, “Which ones will succeed, and who will need additional help? Who will be right for this job, and who will struggle?” As a camp director at the beginning of a season, I don’t have the answers to those questions, but the one thing I know for sure is that our counselor staff will all need the support of all of our head staff many times during the summer. Some staff will ask for help and some will not. However, it is our job to help motivate and support them.
Let's take a look at a counselor we will call Chris. When Chris came to camp, he had all the excitement and eagerness to do a great job. At first all went well and then, after awhile, the enthusiasm began to diminish. What do we need to do to help motivate Chris and give him the support he needs to turn around or prevent this downslide? This is the challenge facing camp leaders.
Have a heart-to-heart
Find the right person (someone who has a strong relationship with Chris) to have a heart-to-heart discussion with him. If you approach Chris and ask him what is wrong, you show him that he is valued. The message becomes, “Chris matters.” You care enough as a supervisor to find out what is wrong and begin the discussion as to how the situation can be improved. But before you get to this point with Chris, you might try a few tactics to minimize the downslide.
Value your staff
After all, you did hire your staff didn't you? You saw positive things in them. Show them that they are valued members of your community. This can be done in many ways:
- Write a personal note to the counselor who performs “above and beyond.” Thank this person for a job well done.
- Throw a party in the middle of the season just to say “thanks” — remember, staff work hard with little time off.
- Use your head staff to unexpectedly relieve counselors from an activity and give them a surprise period off.
- Request that your head staff go into the cabins at night, help put the campers to bed, and read them a bedtime story. Be a leader and get your hands “dirty.” It is actually fun! If you did some of these things for a counselor like Chris, you would likely see him smile more because he feels supported by you.
Look for the positive and acknowledge it
We are experts at finding the things that are going wrong in camp. Why not become experts at finding the great things and recognizing them. At staff meetings, start with a “shout out.” Encourage people to stand up and say thank you to someone for doing something special for them. Shout out to Chris, “Hey, Chris, I appreciate the hard work you did today getting your campers in the water for swim instruction when they didn't want to participate. Way to go getting in there with them. I want to thank you.” Reward these good actions by publicly recognizing the staff responsible for them. Being individually acknowledged can be a very powerful motivator.
At the beginning of camp, you can ask staff members what rewards work for them. Remind him or her that it should be something that is no cost or low cost. Keep these suggestions on file and then use them when you want to reward the staff member for going “above and beyond.” What if Chris had told you that not eating with the campers for one meal was a reward he would enjoy? Imagine the surprise and pleasure if you come up to Chris in the dining hall and relieve him to dine with other adults because of the job well done at the waterfront. Wouldn't that bring a smile to anyone's face?
Be the role model
Walk the walk. Talk the talk. If you want staff to be up and enthusiastic then so should you. Get out and play.
Change their routine
If counselors need a break, consider having them change groups for the day, or even for an hour. A new vantage point can help sometimes. Change the pace. Remember your staff may need variety once in awhile, as well. Let staff participate in special events or special days. This is always fun for them.
Explore their talents
Your staff have hidden talents and interests. Tap into these creative skills and let staff organize and run a special event. This will definitely provide ownership and a degree of control — which is a fantastic motivator. Don't forget to praise them when the job is done. Recognition is an excellent motivator.
Keep staff informed
Your staff has a need to know what is going on and to have their questions answered. Hold weekly staff meetings but keep them short and to the point. In the spirit of camp, you can also make them fun!!! Sing a song. Hold a raffle for a camp sweatshirt or a gift certificate to a local store. After the meeting you should make yourself available so individual staff members can speak with you. This is important one-on-one time.
It is also very valuable to arrange ongoing training sessions in small groups to give people an opportunity to support each other, problem solve, and learn some new approaches to difficult situations. Meet on a weekly basis with small groups to discuss issues like homesickness. Behavior with small groups can be more specific to the individual groups and extremely important to the staff.
In the spirit of communication, think about developing a performance review process with your staff. This is an ideal way to give them feedback — both positive and honest. The process must be supportive and instructive. Help the staff member set one or two measurable goals to work on. Follow up on their progress. It will mean a lot. Follow-up is very important if the review is to be used as a tool to help develop a counselor's skills.
Camp is FUN!!!
Isn't that why our campers and staff come? Encourage and promote the laughter and good times — and the result is increased creativity and reduced tension. We emphasize fun from the first moment our staff enters camp for orientation by making time in the orientation schedule for group games, a game of ball, or a wacky short event where staff have to dress up in costumes.
Consider hiring a staff recreation coordinator with the responsibility to help organize day off and evening activities. Include your staff on trips that take place off camp. Even if they are on a day off, if the transportation is available, invite them to come along. Staff should be permitted and encouraged to use all the camp facilities during their time off if campers are not using them. If you have a fitness center, keep it open late along with the arts and crafts center. Movies can be available at night as well. If possible, provide counselors Internet access so they can check their e-mail. If you have the space in your camp, set up a counselor lounge where counselors can socialize, watch movies, or play pool. Why not make a vending machine available to them during time off.
When the Summer Is Over
Continue to let your staff know you care even when the season is over. Send out a personal birthday card, or send them an occasional e-mail. Even if they are not returning, this leaves them with a good feeling about your environment, and they will more than likely recommend a friend to work at camp for the next season. Send out a survey and ask them how they thought their summer experience went. By doing this, we continue to show staff that we care what they think, even off-season. This process almost always generates good ideas to be used the following summer.
There is no magic wand to wave to motivate your staff. If we go back to the question about Chris — what could be done to prevent or minimize the downslide? The answer is to set up an environment that supports and educates before the downslide occurs. If we care for our staff as individuals and treat them with consideration and respect, the return is great. Camp directors have so much responsibility and so little time that we often don’t know how or when to do all of this as well. Yes, it takes time and effort, but the results are definitely worth it. As a director, you develop a staff that is willing to go the extra mile for you and who performs to the best of their abilities. When staff are happy, they are more likely to return. Reducing the number of new counselors needed by increasing staff retention is much more cost effective — the time spent will save you time and money in the long run.
Make a pledge to try these ideas next summer. The care you give your staff will provide your campers with an exceptional summer experience.
Shelley Tager is the owner/director of Indian Head Camp in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and educational chair for the American Camping Association New York Section. Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the following people as resources for this article: Linda Larsen, Bob Ditter, and Jancy Dorfman of Walt Whitman Camp in New Hampshire.
Originally published in the 2002 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.