Building a Culture of Partnership Instead of Power Over With Our Staff

This is Peter Drews!

Why do some challenging conversations with staff lead to huge impact and while most at best lead to tiny changes?

This week in The Summer Camp Society Semester we were talking about difficult conversations with staff and Peter Drews, YMCA Camp Minikani, gave us a profound takeaway. We were trying to narrow in on what was true about the tough conversations we have had with staff that lead to the biggest breakthroughs. Peter said:

“When I am collaborating with someone I care about to help them do something they care about.”

I am in.

Think about it. The most effective helping conversations happen when you are working together with one of your best friends to help them solve a real problem they want to solve.

Kurtz has some thoughts and Mike O’Brien chimes in with a great staff training session at the end of this article.


Now there are a lot of incredibly challenging aspects of this, but it gives us a goal and a place to start, mostly a place to start way before the tough convo.

  1. How can I build closer relationships with the people I supervise so I can know what they care about and so they know I care about them?

  2. What does my camp really care about and how can I make sure we are articulating this to staff when we hire them so they can decide if they care too?

  3. How do I make sure the policies and topics of these tough conversation line up with what we are saying we care about?

Kurtz’s Staff Training on Practicing Coworker Confrontations

This is a huge undertaking. Here is where I am going to start with Stomping Ground. Jack actually do this you lazy dog!

  1. What Happened? - Compile a list of as many tough conversations that happened this summer as you can. Look through incident reports and staff evaluations.

    1. I think if I were doing this exercise, I'd also want some direct input from staff. I'd call my unit directors, my wellness coordinator, and my assistant summer camp director. I'd ask them to think about the corrective conversations they had to engage in most this summer.- Peter

  2. Breaking It Down - Categorize them by what you think the problem is. This will take some thinking. Is it level of engagement, timeliness, violating a specific policy? Which category has the largest number of conversations?

    1. I can see how frequency of conversations is really important. I think I'd also want to look at the list I compiled and think about the conversations that most spoke to our core values. When were my staff members doing something that felt like it really flew in the face of our values? Is that happening consistently? Is that behavior happening more in one unit or with one staff member more than with others? I'd want to identify patterns, to learn more about where our staff culture can improve. - Peter

  3. What Do We Care About? - Now, this is the hard part. Dig into this category for what is actually happening and figure out why, really why, this policy is necessary for camp and in alignment with what camp really cares about. Pick a handful of staff that are likely to break this policy. What do they care about that overlaps with why this policy is in place?

    1. I love this. It's another place where a phone call might be a good idea. - Peter

  4. Explain It - Write a quick one-pager not just explaining the policy, but explaining the overlap between what your staff members care about and why the policy exists. Try to really give them the benefit of the doubt, it is November so that is easier. Why should they care? What else do they already care about? Be as specific as possible.

  5. Do Something - At this point, feel free to change the policy, make plans to change your staff, or make plans to change how you hire staff. My hope is that by picking the most frequent problem with staff I can either get more staff on board or just change the policy.


It is not always the case that when people believe in something they can do it, but it is a million times easier to have a conversation with someone when they are invested in making the same change we are.

“When I am collaborating with someone I care about to help them do something they care about.”

Thank you Peter.




Some thoughts from Kurtz while she is taking care of her newborn. #businessMOM #mba #BABYKURTZ #yesshecandoitall

It’s kind of like the same technique in principled negotiations (win-win negotiations). There is a summary of the principled negotiation book. The “interests” part is what might be most pertinent to this convo.

Principled Negotiation: Interests:

  • The difference between interests and positions is crucial: interests motivate people; they are silent movers behind the hubbub of positions. Your position is something you have decided upon, while your interests are what caused you to decide.

  • You can ask for another's position, making clear that you do not want justification, just a better understanding their needs, hopes, fears, or desires that they serve.

  • The most powerful interests are basic human needs: security, economic well-being, sense of belonging, recognition, control over one's life

  • If you want the other side to take your interests into account, explain to them what those interests are

  • Make your interests come alive - be specific!

  • Acknowledge their interests as part of the problem - be sure to show your appreciate their interests if you want treatment in like kind

  • Put the problem before your answer: give your interests and reasoning first and your conclusions or proposals later

  • Look forward, not back: instead of asking someone to justify what they did yesterday, ask "Who should do what tomorrow?"

  • Be concrete but flexible: treat the opinion you formulate as simply illustrative - final decision to be worked on later

  • Be hard on the problem, soft on the people: show you are attacking the problem, not people - give positive support to the humans on the other side equal in strength to the vigor you emphasize the problem - this causes cognitive dissonance and in order for the other to overcome it they will be tempted to disassociate from the problem in order to join you in doing something about it”

A Staff Training Session From Mike O’Brien


Camp Director, Camp AJ, Kentucky

We ran what turned out to be a great session during staff training this summer on a similar topic that ended up helping all of us align our goals for camp.

We posted a bunch of large sheets of paper around the room with a question at the top, things like "What should we expect from our campers?" and the converse "What should our campers expect from us?" There were questions relating to leadership, parents, peers, CIT/LITs, as many relational aspects of camp as we could come up with.

Then each staff person was given a stack of post it notes and as a group we went around the room and wrote words or short statements answering the question and sticking it on the sheet.

After about 20 minutes or whenever most folks had a chance to think about all the questions, we broke up into small groups and each group was assigned one of the large sheets of paper. Those groups then discussed and ranked what they felt were the top 3-5 most important/most meaningful answers, and then presented that to the whole group for discussion.

The end result was great discussions about expectations vs reality, what things matter a lot and what things don't really, and also gave leadership some great insight from our staff about what they expected from us as well as how they perceived our relationships with them. SO GOOD!


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