Less is More Except when More is More

When I designed my cultural expectations for my staff each summer, there was a guiding precept that I returned to frequently: If I am willing to trust a staff member with the lives of the campers, then I shouldn’t micro-manage their judgement on their choices throughout the day. Applying this helped build trust and increased their work ethic and level of responsibility.

A lot of the time as a manager, you feel pressure to create rules and systems to check up on your employees. If you hear that someone isn’t showing up on time, or isn’t diligently completing every part of a task, it’s really tempting to add systems that verify these things (from employee punch cards to layers of checklists and paperwork). But while those systems might mitigate a particular employee behavior, and might do it quite successfully for a time, in the long run, those untrustworthy activities will manifest in other, more secret and malignant ways. If on the other hand you respond to challenges involving motivation with a commitment to the ideals of the company, you can change your employees’ behavior without new rules or regulations.

When too many staff took breaks during the afternoon because they were staying up too late hanging out in the evening, I could have gotten angry, or started making rules like “only five minutes in the staff lounge”. A better solution is to speak to some of the social leaders and ask them if they’ve noticed the staff being tired for the last few days. Once they agree, ask them to use the fact that they are a leader on staff to try to get people to get to sleep a little earlier for the next few nights to help with energy levels during the day. Making the rule would have ended up with frustrated employees and the tired ones sneaking off to sleep in their cabin and avoiding the lounge. Instead staff were energized and the leaders confident and aware that their administrator believes in them.

This brings me to the “More is More” part of the post. I played with kids as often as I could as a camp director. I was having a good day if I was able to head out to the field and play a game of ultimate frisbee or soccer during our final period of the day. I spent as many free times as I could building canals in the sand with kids. On my end of summer review, I very commonly received feedback from my staff along the lines of “you played with campers more than some counselors”. While this approach wouldn’t work for some jobs, so be careful in how you use it, in my case it showed my rank and file staff that their job mattered. If the manager does their job when they get a chance, their job must matter, and thus they will try harder.

To make this whole approach work, I definitely had to do more preparatory work before the summer. In the spring I would make as the many of the forms, worksheets, and schedules that I use to keep camp organized as I possibly could. Some days I wouldn’t get to play with kids at all, but other days, I would spend hours playing, keeping my radio close at hand in case I needed to solve problems. But on the whole, the more I played with kids, the more my staff were motivated to play with kids, and the fewer problems arose because staff wanted to work harder and believed in their work more strongly.


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