You’ve heard it plenty of times and maybe even said it yourself: “It’s not personal. It’s business.”

Among other well-known cinematic examples this “don’t be upset with me” philosophy is on display in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail. Meg Ryan’s small family business has just been forced to close in response to Tom Hanks’ big box store’s move into the neighborhood, and when Hanks uses the “it’s not personal” excuse, Ryan responds: “That just means it wasn’t personal to you. What is so wrong with being personal, anyway? Because whatever else anything is, it ought to begin with being personal.” (Ephron, 1998).

Ryan makes a good point (sorry, Hanks, I still love you!). Just because something is business doesn’t mean it isn’t also personal. This is obvious in the business of camp, which at the end of the day is all about people. Campers, families, staff, alumni, donors: they are the center points around which program, facility, operations, and everything else circles. As Paul Simkins says in his blog Boldly Lead, “When someone does something that causes a well-up of emotion in you, you are being asked to squelch it because, after all, it’s only business. Don’t believe it! You are emotionally invested in the work you do. If you’re not, you have a whole other problem” (Simkins, 2020).

And let’s be honest. What we’re selling isn’t just a week in the woods. We’re selling camp, that intangible business that is approximately 84 percent culture, 6 percent chance of inclement weather, 9 percent s’mores, and 1 percent all the rest of it. In order to get folks to buy in, to really drink the bug juice, if you will, it has to be personal. We tug on their heartstrings. We push little paper boats with candles and wishes out into the water and cry as we watch the last one fade along with the summer. We exhort staff to make a difference, to make this “the best summer ever” for the kids and, by extension, for themselves.

If that isn’t personal, what is? And where would camp be without its people?

What folks really mean when they say “it’s not personal, it’s business” is that we shouldn’t take it personally. Yet when we’re in the midst of camp and also engulfed in a swirling cloud of everyone’s emotions, how do we find the balance between “Sure, it’s just business” and “No, I’m definitely taking it personally”? According to Simkins, that balance is “where the development of emotional maturity comes in. When we are emotionally secure, we learn to express emotion, to feel it, and yet not let it push out of control. We balance the rational and the emotionally charged” (2020).

It Doesn’t Get More Personal Than Crying at Camp

It’s a standard day at camp: you’re trying to find time to place the milk order and also return several increasingly urgent phone calls while hearing from maintenance that the sink in the washhouse is doing that hissing thing again, so of course the kids are refusing to go use the “snake room.” And now, on top of all of that, there’s a counselor crying in your office.

So, to recap, you’re trying to run your business, and someone who you’ve hired to do just one thing (be responsible for others) is currently not, in fact, being responsible for others. Presuming that there are no obvious visual injuries or clear reasons for immediate concern, you’re probably thinking some combination of “I don’t have time for this,” “I just need this person to do the job they were hired to do,” and “This isn’t important enough to be on my radar.” It’s natural for us to want them to feel better (or maybe just stop crying?), but also to second-guess their distress. We think: Isn’t there something they could do to contain it? Why do I need to be involved?

For most people, our ability to outwardly convey patience and understanding is inversely proportional to how many other things are needing our immediate attention. Of course, you may also have had a much more empathetic first reaction and if so, I commend you. Finding empathy in these moments is a task all its own as what feels like the constant emotional neediness of today’s employees wears us down.

The first time a staff member had a full-on crying jag in my office was a bit startling. It’s not hard to make the jump from mild fascination with the scene playing out on the other side of the desk to Whatever made this individual think it was OK to cry in front of their boss? Why can’t they have the good grace to go cry quietly in the woods somewhere and come back when they’re good to go? What will their colleagues think of them? They’re weak. It’s unprofessional.

In a recent Forbes Magazine article, Yolanda Lau explains why the shift toward acceptance of emotion in the workplace seems so jarring to us “old school” folks. “For most of the 20th century, companies valued employees who behaved like robots . . . having emotions at work became a liability. If a worker had to take a moment during factory work to process their emotions, that would hold up the production line” (Lau, 2020).

Not that camp has ever been comparable to an assembly line, but it wasn’t just in the workplace that efficiency was stressed. Schools also reinforced rote behavior, memorization, and efficiency, because they were preparing youth for the workforce.

But the workplace has changed. More outward expressions of personal emotion are here to stay. Emotional intelligence is now prized above rote autonomous work to the point where our education systems are scrambling to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) in an effort to adjust a school system that was designed in earlier years to turn out those factory workers in droves (Lau, 2020).

So while the needs of new generations of employees are changing, our rusty, historically ingrained attitudes toward seeing employees get overly emotional may not be keeping up with the times. In today’s workplace, not all emotion is inappropriate. In fact, the opposite is true: it can be a sign of trust and a symbol that your employees believe you’re an honestly good person who actually cares about their needs. And, trust me, this is a good thing, because research tells us that newer generations use how their workplace feels as a key measure of job satisfaction.

Rather than unsettle us, it should make sense that our Gen Z employees seek workplaces where they can be their emotionally authentic selves. The days of getting by with transactional interactions are gone; Gen Z craves true collaboration with and personalized support from their supervisors. And why shouldn’t they? Their world has always been one where normalcy is receiving a push notification on their phone from the store they’re currently shopping in, pointing out something they might like based on their online search history. Despite my Gen X self being horrifically frightened by this, I have to ask, “If a shopping app can understand them that well, shouldn’t the humans who hire them also put in more than just a token effort?”

You may worry that by acknowledging this growing need to accept emotional expression at work, you’re somehow contributing to the degradation of good order and discipline. But appropriately expressing emotional upset is not inherently counterproductive to a good working environment. In fact, asking employees to “shut off” for the entirety of their work time — which at camp can be hours or days on end with very few breaks — is much more likely to cause dangerous levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout. It also implies to our staff that our supervision of them is business, not personal. It’s strictly transactional (read: old-school, assembly-line style).

On the other hand, getting in touch with feelings and encouraging employees to feel comfortable expressing themselves will, according to Lau, “do more than increase productivity; you’ll create a workplace that employees feel supported in, allowing you to recruit new employees more competitively” (2020).

Taking Steps to Incorporate the Personal into the Business

Good business is grounded in solid practices and procedures. So, some ground rules and guidelines will help keep emotion where it belongs while also allowing employees to feel respected, heard, and supported. If you’re ready to believe that it can be both business and personal, consider these steps as a jumping-off point:

Openly share with staff during orientation that expressions of emotion are expected and do not make them unwelcome team members. Make sure to give examples of what is and is not considered appropriate. For example, taking some space to themselves to gather their thoughts or do a few deep breathing exercises — appropriate. Bursting into tears in front of a group of children while screaming, “I’m all alone in this world!” and scaring the breakfast out of them — not appropriate.

Let staff know what systems and which people are in place to support them. For example, make it clear if they should speak to their direct supervisor before going to the director, or if there is a member of the leadership team designated to provide emotional support. Beware of falling into the trap of double-utilizing a camper behavior specialist as a staff emotional support go-to. The two sets of skills — even if the person is a trained psychotherapist or mental health practitioner — are not necessarily the same.

Think about how to provide coverage at camp when a staff member needs a break to get their emotions in check. That doesn’t mean you have to hire for Crying Counselor Coverage (just picture the job description!). However, just as you have a plan to ensure that ratios can be appropriately managed if a staff member is at the health center for physical illness, so should you have a plan for covering emotional health needs.

Be proactive about staff morale. It’s something we all recognize as being important for retention, and it is also essential for current employees’ good emotional health. Find ways to highlight the good work people are doing and acknowledge that the emotional upheaval leads somewhere important — like changing kids’ lives. (Cheesy, but true!)

Acknowledge that being OK with outward displays of emotion at work doesn’t necessarily come naturally to all of us. Gen X, Boomers, and old-school folks were simply not raised or taught to manage the emotions of their employees. Show that you are making an effort to move forward with the times; that will be appreciated. At the same time, “I’m working on it” only gets you so far for so long. If you’re struggling to accept the emotionally intense workplace of the 2020s, ask for help.

If you’re already doing all these things well, take it to the next level. Get trained in trauma-informed environments and build a deeper understanding of how emotional intelligence and emotional trauma can define aspects of the workplace and the workforce. Invite your leadership and supervisory staff to learn more about where people come from and how it affects what they do. Invest time and money (even just a little, if you can) in emotionally driven positive outcomes for staff, and watch your recruitment and retention rates soar.

To sum it up: you’re running a business. Camper weeks, cost per meal, balanced budgets, and all of that matter deeply to the health of that business. Also, taking the time to be present, to actively listen, and to provide support to staff who are simply expressing emotions — being human, I would even go so far as to say — can only improve your business.

It may feel awkward at first or even like a “waste of time,” but stick with it. It will result in increased productivity, professionalism, and maturity where it counts, which ultimately is out there with the campers. If staff cry behind your office door, so be it. Luckily, tissues can be bulk-ordered on pallets, just like #10 cans of carrot coins and corn niblets.

Photos courtesy of Camp Romaca, Hinsdale, MA\


Ephron, N. (Director). (1998). You’ve Got Mail [Film]. Warner Brothers.

Simpkins, P. (2020). It’s not personal — What they are really saying. Boldly Lead.

Lau, Y. (2020, May 6). Bringing emotions into the workplace. Forbes.

Emily Golinsky, MS, provides training, consulting, and advocacy for camps, schools, and youth development organizations through her company Bright Moose LLC. Emily welcomes feedback and conversation at