How many of these sentences have you heard from inexperienced leadership staff?

  • "I don't know why they can't do it. We went over that in training."
  • "She's just lazy and doesn't care."
  • "He keeps making the same mistake."
  • "Nobody follows that rule."

Talk like this often precedes a request for someone else to intervene and solve a problem, or it comes attached to a list of reasons why that problem will persist. Inexperienced leaders lack the tools to effectively address problem behaviors with their counselors, but this can be overcome through training. Equipping new leaders to navigate high stakes conversations with confidence builds stronger leaders and improves the relationship between counseling and leadership staff at camp. Those leaders will deal with violated expectations earlier, discuss disappointments without encountering defensiveness, and solve accountability problems without damaging friendships.

My favorite exercise to do with our incoming leaders helps them analyze and articulate their own communication style. I ask the group to separate themselves into two categories — on one side are the leaders who prefer to give feedback indirectly; on the other are leaders who prefer a more direct approach. The room is always unbalanced, with more people preferring a softer, gentler approach to giving feedback. Once we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy, I ask the group to divide according to how they prefer to receive feedback. Invariably, everyone crosses to the direct side of the room. People prefer to hear feedback directly, but most firsttime supervisors are not yet comfortable with confronting issues head on. The lack of clarity in their communication can lead to ambiguity and a much longer path to correcting problem behaviors in the counselors they supervise.

In seeking a solution for this mismatch, we began incorporating ideas into our supervisor training from two renowned leadership books, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High and Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. Both books address how to engage in meaningful, effective dialogue and create a culture of accountability. "Crucial conversations" are defined as those in which the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. Often, leaders don't reach their full potential in these conversations, to unpleasant or ineffective result. These are conversations critical to the success of the organization, and there's a certain skill set required to conduct them well. Engaging effectively in crucial conversations is not about being overtly confrontational, avoiding real conflict, or winning. It's about how to remain in open dialogue with others to get the results you desire. These books provide young leaders with five key tools they need to step up to their most difficult camp-related conversations.

One: Create Safety

According to Crucial Conversations, "When faced with pressure and strong opinions, we often stop worrying about the goal of adding to the pool of meaning and start looking for ways to win, punish, or keep the peace" (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002). One common misunderstanding among new leaders is that they will have to choose between telling the truth or keeping a friend. Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive if these leaders are equipped with the skills to navigate difficult conversations.

An essential element to any crucial conversation is emotional safety, so our leaders need to understand how to create that safety with their counselors. All parties must feel empowered to share honest opinions. Establishing an understanding that you care about the other people involved (mutual respect) and you care about their goals and have their best interests in mind (mutual purpose) creates the safety necessary to engage in a crucial conversation. Without these elements, both parties fall back on natural tendencies to assume the worst of others.

Two: Control Your Emotions

According to Crucial Accountability, "Acting unprofessionally never earns you points. It takes the spotlight off the original offense and puts it on you at a time when you're on your worst behavior" (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2013).

Every meaningful conversation should start with compiling the facts. Creating this "shared pool of meaning" provides the basis for the rest of the conversation and allows for a more objective approach, without the charge of emotion leading the way. Although emotion is inseparable from our behavior, being in control of our own emotions during these crucial conversations results in a more productive and clear outcome.

We tell our leaders that the worst way to approach a crucial conversation is for them to unload a jumbled mess of thoughts and feelings without any regard to how it is going to be received by a counselor. They need to:

  • Speak persuasively, not abrasively.
  • Avoid making statements that will lead the counselor to become defensive or shut down.
  • Ask themselves, "What do I really want for myself, the other person, our relationship, or camp?" Then, "How should I behave if I want to get those results?"

Three: Practice Growth Mindset Leadership

Crucial Accountability also says, "Rather than judging others who violate an expectation as unmotivated and therefore selfish and insensitive, we add the possibility that maybe they actually tried to live up to their promises but ran into a barrier" (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2013).

A critical concept for our new leaders to understand is that all counselors arrive at camp wanting to do a great job and be successful in their roles. Nobody accepts the job with the expectation that they will fail. Unfortunately, counselors experience varying degrees of success during the summer. Although it is easy to dismiss these weaker counselors as unmotivated or incapable, we want their leaders to assume that a counselor has the best intentions when mistakes are made.

Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset tells us that people can develop new and improved skills through hard work and dedication (2006). Making assumptions and assigning labels to counselors prevents us from cultivating the highest potential in each of them.

Removing success barriers for counselors through training, coaching, and remediation gives the leader ownership over a counselor's success. Rather than allowing themselves to decide that someone is just "not a great fit" at camp, we require our leaders to examine performance gaps more closely by asking:

  • Why would a reasonable person act this way?
  • What have I not communicated clearly?
  • What additional training would result in improved performance?
  • What support does this counselor need from me in order to experience success?

Asking our leaders to have genuine faith in the abilities of their counselors has encouraged them to address performance issues earlier and become more creative with their solutions. Even when we encounter the rare counselor who is truly not a good match in our environment, both the leader and the counselor feel good about the outcome of the situation and know that every appropriate option has been explored.

Four: Hold Others Accountable

Crucial Accountability additionally states: "Rather than come right out and talk about a missed commitment, many people rely on nonverbal hints and subtle innuendo. They figure that's faster and safer than actually talking about a problem. Some deal almost exclusively in hints. For instance, to make their point, they frown, smirk, or look concerned. When somebody's late, they glance at their watches. This vague approach is fraught with risk. People may get the message, but what if they misinterpret the nonverbal hints? Besides, how are you supposed to document your actions" (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2013)?

Creating a culture of accountability at camp involves defining expectations clearly and requiring counselors to meet those expectations consistently. When the gap between our expectations of a counselor and his or her actual performance increases, strong leaders diagnose why someone is falling short of the set expectations and derive a plan to help address the problem and change the behaviors.

Among the most useful accountability tools we use is the CPR model. The first conversation is about the content (C) of what went wrong. When a counselor is late showing up to an activity, the conversation the leader has with the counselor emphasizes the importance of being on time, reviews the schedule, and asks the counselor to commit to arriving on time in the future. If the problem persists, the next conversation addresses the pattern (P) that is developing. Now that the counselor has arrived late to an activity again, the leader shifts the focus of the conversation from not knowing the schedule to concern about whether the counselor is able to correct the problem. Repeated tardiness to the activity is not acceptable, and a skilled leader will address the problem behavior in addition to highlighting the pattern that appears to be developing. The third conversation addresses the impact on the relationship (R) that is resulting from repeated broken promises. It's no longer about a counselor showing up late to an activity; we're now questioning whether he has the integrity or character to follow through with his promises and commitments. This model holds counselors accountable for doing what they know is correct and organically increases the severity of the supervisor's response to an undesired behavior.

Five: Finish and Follow Up

According to Crucial Conversations, "Goals without deadlines aren't goals; they're merely directions" (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002). The final step to engaging in an effective crucial conversation is to reach a resolution. Before a conversation is complete, both parties must agree on what is going to happen, by when, and by whom. All commitments and promises are recorded in a way that is accessible to both the leader and the counselor. The counselor repeats back the new expectation or desired behavior. What should he or she start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing? Explicitly defining the desired result increases the chance that the counselor will be successful.

An essential component to this process is setting a date for following up with the counselor. Even if the issue is addressed properly, failure to follow up and monitor a counselor's progress negates the progress made during the initial conversation. These subsequent meetings can encourage a counselor to continue on the right path and can serve as gentle reminders to get back on track if the counselor gets off course again.

Focus on Communication Skills

An inherent challenge of operating a seasonal camp business is experiencing high levels of turnover in the management roles. Each year, we must equip new leaders with the skills they need to successfully navigate their first supervisory experiences. A heightened focus on communication skills, and specifically engaging in crucial conversations, has helped our camp to foster a culture of accountability and become a place where all counselors can grow, learn, and perform to the best of their abilities.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2013). Crucial accountability: tools for resolving violated expectations, broken commitments, and bad behavior, Second Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Patterson K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

For More Information
Check out these resources for more on effective ways to have crucial conversations:

Alison Moeschberger is a director at Gold Arrow Camp, a traditional residential summer camp in the mountains of central California.

Photo courtesy of Park Slope Day Camp, Brooklyn, New York.