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  • Nick M. Teich, PhD, LCSW

Conflict within your staff: How will you deal with it?

Through coaching camp directors and certainly from my time as a camp director, I know quite well that conflict within staff can always arise. It is as an issue that is present in every organization. It is simply an outcome of many humans working, and sometimes living, together. Lots of camps have been thinking about this lately. (Maine Summer Camps even hosted a director meeting about it.)

Staff conflict can be tackled in many different ways, causing wildly different outcomes. We train our staff on conflict resolution with our campers, but do we talk enough about conflict when it relates to staff themselves? How about camp leadership, too?

Learning to work with others who have different viewpoints is essential. But for some camp staff, this hasn't been tested. If working at camp is their first job, or their first jobs were less personal and intimate than the camp setting, then this will be new for them.

Prevention and preparation are essential components of a camp director's job, and dealing with conflict within staff should be included in that prevention and preparation. So, what can you think about and even put in place before opening day? Consider the following questions:

Do you have guidelines for dealing with staff conflict at camp? Do you have rules about respecting all parties when talking about difficult subjects? What boundaries have you set up, if any? Are you thinking about these in both general camp scenarios as well as how they might apply to staff discussions about the conflict in the Middle East?

How can you begin thinking about these and forming something written? One place to start is with conflict and tough conversations that you have had in the past at camp. What do you say and do when you have to give constructive, or even negative feedback to one of your staff? How does your staff approach you when they feel upset about a camp policy or something that happened at camp? Have those approaches worked in the past? What hasn't worked about them? How do you want staff to approach one another? To approach you? What can you do if staff cannot come to a resolution on something?

What happens at camp can become deeply personal. Intent versus impact is not always as straightforward as it sounds. How do you (or will you) respond if someone is truly worried about their safety? What if it is about emotional safety? What if you and the staff member disagree about what is and is not emotionally safe?

Psychologist and author Jon Haidt talks about "discover mode" versus "defend mode" in his new book, The Anxious Generation. I propose to adapt this language a bit for camps but follow the general definitions Haidt discusses. I am going to use the terms "opportunity mode" versus "threat mode." Each person at camp faces each situation in either "opportunity mode" or "threat mode." What do I mean by that?

Essentially, staff who default to "opportunity mode" generally see the world from a curious standpoint, thinking things such as: "I'd like to learn more about why that is," or, "I'm going to initially approach this with questions, not judgment." Staff whose default is threat mode see the need to protect themselves and others, even if that's at camp: "This camp policy is causing negative effects on campers and staff, and I immediately need to speak to the director and tell them this," or, "a colleague's viewpoints are very different from mine so there is no way we can work together, and they must leave or I must leave."

We have all had staff members who default to either opportunity mode or threat mode. Staff who normally see opportunities sometimes see threats, or vice versa, and for good reason. In the outside world, life is a balance. But in the camp world, opportunity mode should win the day almost every time. If there is trust and a shared set of values and goals within staff and between staff and leadership, then the need for threat mode should go down considerably. Here are a couple of examples of approaches from the two different modes:

Two staff members disagree on an issue that feels personal to them. In threat mode, the party feeling threatened might become argumentative or even storm out and ask to be put in a different staff group than the other party, whereas in opportunity mode, there is a goal of truly finding out where the other party is coming from, even if at the end you "agree to disagree." The goal for all camps is not always to have your staff agree with one another, but to have them be able to peacefully coexist and get their work done in a positive and safe community.

Instead of a staff member feeling that a specific camp policy is intended to cause negative effects and treating the situation as such, perhaps they can step back and be curious about it first. Threat mode can look like an immediate demand to end a policy, gathering other staff support without enough information, and urgently and forcefully asking to speak to a director about it or perhaps even putting it out on social media before discussing it with a director. Opportunity mode means approaching the director to say, "I am wondering about this camp policy. It seems like it might not be having the effects you intended, and I'd like to have a discussion about it when you have a moment."

Get staff to understand that they don't need to be in threat mode when they're at your camp. They should absolutely be able to let their guard down a bit and trust that the camp, and other staff, are willing to listen to disagreements and talk things through. Sometimes the end result isn't what one of the parties wanted, but they can still feel satisfied if the process of disagreement and conflict was approached with respect and thoughtfulness. It is equally important for camp leadership to approach their staff from opportunity mode, and not to answer or argue defensively.

Spend some time (I know, it's precious prep time right now!) thinking through different scenarios, setting up guidelines and boundaries, and preparing for conflict. After all, it's a guarantee that some conflict will arise this summer, so why not be more prepared than ever?

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