Training Staff in what Really Matters, Part 2: Framing Expectations and Building Empathy

Training Staff in what Matters, Part 2: Framing Expectations, and Building Empathy

This is part 2 in a series on training staff in what really matters by our newest Camp Hacker - James Davis from Summer Camp Revolution. Part 1 dealt with getting counselors to buy in to your camp's mission, and each other. Read that one if you missed it, and then head back here for part 2!

In part 1 of this series, we dealt with a few new ways to get summer staff to buy in to our mission and into one another. Once this buy-in has taken place, and we have a captive audience, we need to deliver teachings that will actually help them execute on their newfound buy-in.

When constructing a staff training schedule, the order in which we do things is absolutely crucial. One day must build upon the teachings of the previous days, hopefully culminating in a staff of lean, mean, life-changing machines by the time your staff training is complete.

But building a killer staff through staff training is a lot more like building a house than putting together a puzzle. While there is some leeway in what should happen when, there are some things that must be in place first for optimal development to occur. Buy-in is easily the most important thing, so we covered that first. This article will deal with the two things that should absolutely happen next: framing your staff's expectations, and helping them build empathy and understanding toward one another.

Framing expectations

Establishing accurate expectations for what will happen during summer camp is the ounce of prevention that could save you the need for a pound of cure later, especially as it pertains to staff resenting doing the hard things that need to be done to keep camp functioning.

I learned about the costs of poorly framing expectations in my first summer as a camp director. I had no idea that summer staff had historically cleaned the lodges here, and didn’t mention that this would be a responsibility they’d have during their time here. When my facilities director came to me after the kids had left on that first Saturday to come and get his cleaning staff, everyone was horrified to learn that no one had been given an accurate portrayal of what would be required. My facilities director was grumpy because he didn’t have anyone who was ready to clean, I was embarrassed because I had just told the staff they’d be free to go, and the staff was drained by having a responsibility sprung on them unexpectedly.

During interviews for the following summer, I just threw out a quick, “and at the end of the week, all the staff clean the lodges. I’m sure that won’t be a problem, right?” Everyone agreed happily, and cleaning was never an issue. When we know what to expect, we can handle. When we don’t? Not so much.

So how do we frame expectations as accurately as possible? I’d love to share two activities I’ve done that have served to get staff in the right frame of mind to tackle the summer, help everyone understand what they’ll be doing during the summer, and understand and appreciate what everyone else does at camp as well.

The counselor’s speech

The major issue that I’ve noticed new counselors or new leadership staff having is bringing their old expectations to a new role. Seeing people who’ve worked for me struggle with this time and time again, I realized that I hadn’t been intentional enough in helping these people bring new expectations to both how they need to interact with others at camp, and how I will be interacting with them. Thus, the counselor’s speech was born.

The counselor’s speech is a term one of my summer staff came up with many moons ago to describe a talk I’ve now been known to give new staff members. This talk can be given to campers transitioning into becoming LITs, or LITs become junior counselors, all the way up to hiring someone as a summer camp director, and it helps tremendously to help these transitioning staff form new expectations.

I’ll give an example of how I relay the counselor’s speech to a camper transitioning into being a staff member, which I think is the most pertinent example.

Camp staff  really do  want to pass along the magic they felt at camp. We just need to remind them sometimes.

Camp staff really do want to pass along the magic they felt at camp. We just need to remind them sometimes.

“When you’ve come here in the past, the camp experience has been all about how we can help you learn to love yourself. How we can help you become a best version of yourself so you can go take on the rest of the world. Our staff’s main focus has been on how much fun you’re having, how loved you feel, and how well we were preparing you to go out into the world renewed and refreshed.

“This summer, that’s all going to change. When you were paying to be here, our goal was to help you. Now that we’re paying you to be here, you’re part of us, and our goal is to help them. The campers that will be here this summer. I know this is going to seem weird, at first. I never forced you to do anything whatsoever when you were a camper here. But since you’ve willingly joined our team, there are going to be times when I ask you to do things you may not want to do. There are going to be times when I do things I don’t want to do.

“But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I’ve noticed in my life that the more I’ve focused on serving others, and less about worrying if others are serving me, I’ve become more fulfilled. I’ve transitioned from camper, to LIT, to counselor, to unit leader, and eventually to Executive Director. Along the way, there have been fewer and fewer people whose job it was to check on me to make sure I’m feeling okay. Sometimes, that’s been pretty hard. I know it might be hard for you this summer.

“The good news is: it’s still my job to make sure that you have a terrific summer. It just might look a little different than it has in the past. My goal for this summer isn’t to create the camp magic for you. My goal for this summer is to help you feel what it’s like to create that magic for others.

“My guess? You’re going to have the best summer you’ve ever had. In our interview, you told me you wanted to come back so you could give to kids what your counselors gave to you. Now’s your chance. If you have eyes to see and ears to hear and a willingness to use the tools we are going to give you, your life could be changed forever. I know that’s what happened to me.

“I mentioned earlier that fewer people focus on giving me a good time than ever before. That can be difficult sometimes, sure, but knowing that also fulfills me. If people don’t need to worry about tending to me, I know they can give their efforts to people who do need it. As I’ve gained more responsibility at camp, camp has also meant so much more to me. I think it can be that for you, too. But that’s going to be up to you – are you ready for that metamorphosis from camper to counselor?”

Now, you’ll obvious have different variations of this talk based on whom you are speaking to. Saying the words above to your new program director would feel a little condescending, to be sure. But the ideas are the same – if the person you are talking with has bought into why your mission is so important, he or she should take pleasure in accepting greater responsibility in making that happen. The expectation we are framing here is that camp is about serving others. If a staff person is at camp with the expectation that the community is in place primarily to serve them, heartache is inevitable. But if they’re ready to serve? All systems are go.

Building understanding and empathy: the Prioritized Fun List

Brace yourselves – the next activity is one of my very favorites to do during staff training. The premise and set up is simple, and the outcomes are often tremendous.

The premise? We divide staff into small groups (figure 4-6 people) and each group is given laminated sheets with a bunch of different jobs that need to get done at camp. We try and think of several responsibilities from every role at camp. So we’ll have chopping onions on there, or taking a hook out of a fish’s mouth, or calling parents to tell them their child got in a fight, or playing Ga Ga, or dealing with homesickness, or planning an evening activity, etc. You get the idea. Once they have their lists, it’s on to the fun.

Step 1: How fun is this?

In these small groups, staff members must order these activities from “most fun” to “least fun,” based on nothing but their own subjectivity. Ties are permitted. When the groups have finished this task, they meet back as a large group, and discuss how their lists are different, and how they are the same.

Immediately, groups realize that they have totally different perspectives on what is a good time, and what isn’t. This is great – it allows staff and directors to learn where others’ interests lie – and really helps us help staff find the roles where they feel most fulfilled and confident.

Another thing that comes to light is the pride different areas take in various tasks that might otherwise seem mundane. Last year, I learned that my kitchen staff love taking out the garbage, because they get to ride the tractor, and they’d developed a little game around it. They shared this with the rest of the staff, who immediately moved up taking out the garbage on their lists.

Perhaps the largest benefit of the initial stage of this activity is the awareness of just how much goes into making camp happen. A lot of times, staff members in different areas struggle with empathizing with people who work in other areas. Working in the kitchen might seem easy when kitchen staff members have the whole night off and you’re dealing with a wet bed at 2 AM, but you may not have realized they’re up at 5:45 every day to make breakfast happen. Being a counselor might look like fun and games to you, as a kitchen staff person, if you never even considered that counselors deal with homesickness nightly.

When staff understand the hard work that everyone puts in, regardless of their role, staff unity is a lot more possible.

Note: We have a staffing format that means most staff will do most responsibilities over the course of the summer. If your staff has segregated duties, be mindful that people with “less fun” jobs might struggle with this activity at first. The payoff comes later, so stick with it!

Step 2: Making the case

After staff have come to peace with the differences in their respective lists, we allow for staff to make the case that certain activities should be higher or lower on others’ lists. The only rule is that you must have performed this task at our camp, or in another working environment. It’s okay to speculate on what would be more or less fun for you in the small group setting, but before the large group, we want to hear from people who have done the different jobs.

I love this portion of the activity because it gives people a chance to give voice to their joys and struggles during the summer. It gives me, as a director, a chance to give voice to the struggles I have during the summer. I love listening to a counselor share her passion for leading arts and crafts, even if another group finds it tedious. I love sharing how difficult it is for me to call a parent and share how his or her child is struggling at camp. I love watching people adjusting their lists based on the testimony of others. In those moments, camp staff are really getting what it’s like to be in the roles of other members of our community, and deepening the sense of buy-in that we have toward one another.

Step 3: A matter of utmost importance

In this step, staff are charged with grouping the activities based on a different set of criteria. While making it clear that camp couldn’t happen without everyone doing all of their specific duties, we are going to discuss how serious it would be if various things didn’t get done.

We’ll form 4 different buckets, and answer the following sentence by putting each task in a given bucket:
If no one ___________________, camp would be ________________.

In the first blank, you place the activity. In the second blank, staff must answer with one of these four answers: Ruined, Much Worse, A little Worse, Fine.

This is where those of us (and I’m including directors, here!) who perform a lot of tasks that the group declared “un-fun” are given our due. We start at the top of the fun list.

If no one played gaga, camp would be a little worse (be prepared for debate!).

If no one made housing assignments, camp would be much worse.

If no one cooked the food, camp would be ruined.

If no one plunged the toilets, camp would be ruined.

A pattern will begin to emerge. A lot of the activities that are the least amount of fun are among the very most important in helping the camp to function. This step of the activity inevitably creates a feeling of gratitude and understanding toward people who do the difficult or “less-fun” tasks that make camp go.

Step 4: Debrief

This activity, while it can be a lot of fun, can have some serious impact as well. Some people don’t like the idea that they spend a lot of time doing things people believe to be “un-fun.” This is where the counselor’s speech, and framing expectations comes into play.

I’ll always note during the debrief that we do our best to help people prepare for exactly what they’ll be doing at camp this summer. I’ll ask, “Why on earth would anyone sign up to come work someplace where they know they will have to do things that might not be fun?”

I’ll then ask, “A lot of the things I do are decidedly in the “un-fun” category on everybody’s lists – why do you think I would ever stop being a camp counselor, and start being a director? Why would I even stop being a camper? They get to do all the fun stuff, and none of the un-fun stuff. What am I thinking?”

If I’ve done a good job with the counselor’s speech, they’ll chime in with how fulfillment can be more important than “fun.” If they’re of the mind that they’ll be fulfilled by taking on whatever comes down the pipe, I’ll know we’re ready to go.

I’ll know I’ve got a staff that’s in the right mindset to do some seriously important, seriously fulfilling, and hopefully, seriously fun work.