Letters from Camp Offer Lessons for the Workplace
Anxious to hear from my kids who were at a summer camp, I was excited to open the mailbox and see two letters from Camp Iduhapi. We had dropped them off at this charming YMCA camp on the shores of a Minnesota lake four days earlier.
The first letter I opened was from Eleanor (10 years old), who wrote, “I’m never coming here again. I hate the food. A girl in my cabin cries herself to sleep every night and keeps me awake. Last night, we had to hike to a campsite in the woods to sleep in tents. It started raining so we went to a storage building until it stopped. When we got back our sleeping bags were all wet. Then Marin got sick, so our counselor took us back to our cabin.”
My heart sunk to hear that things weren’t going well for Eleanor … I held my breath as I opened 8-year-old Jackson’s letter. He wrote, “I’m having a blast at camp. The food is great. My counselors are a ton of fun. They let us have a water balloon fight every night and stay up late and play cards. Once they took us on a late night hike to a boardwalk in the marsh. We saw fireflies and looked at the stars. I even saw a shooting star. Tomorrow we get to hike to a campsite and sleep in a tent.”
Some of my colleagues were over that evening and, as I passed the letters around, one of them asked, “Are they at the same place?” Cracking up over these polar opposite versions of my kids’ camping experiences, several of us remembered the popular song from the 60s, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah! Here I am at Camp Granada …”
I wish that Eleanor’s story had ended like the song does where it stops raining and the unhappy camper starts to have fun: swimming, sailing, and playing baseball. Even though she never went to summer camp again, she survived the week and has some good stories to tell. Jackson went back to Camp Iduhapi and also tried a few other overnight camps. I learned the importance of accepting my kids’ different temperaments and the reality that they may not embrace the same experiences.
This family episode offers an opportunity to explore a story or situation from various viewpoints. In the workplace and in life, differing perspectives shape individual experiences so that some people find joy and satisfaction from the same situation that makes others miserable. Leaders might consider a few lessons in this story as they organize team events and orchestrate team dynamics.
- Neutralize the Luck of the Draw – Eleanor had some bad luck: the homesick cabin-mate and thunderstorm while tent camping. These experiences would be a downer for even the gung-ho campers. Jackson was fortunate to have a playful group in his cabin, who enjoyed the same escapades as he did. When one employee lands a dream job in the same reorganization that other co-workers are assigned to less satisfying roles, those who get the short straw may not feel so happy about the workplace. This dynamic can play out in many other subtle and overt ways, such as office/cubicle assignments, projects, attention from the boss, travel opportunities, scheduling, or who presents a group’s work. As a manager/leader, be sensitive to workplace factors that might be a root cause of an employee’s disgruntled attitude.
- Help Them See the Glass Half Full – Once things started to go badly for Eleanor, it was hard for her to enjoy camp life. Even activities that she loves, like crafts and swimming, didn’t jazz her. Finding himself in his element, every adventure cultivated Jackson’s excitement about being at camp. But his counselors played a big role in fostering positive energy. It’s possible that a gifted counselor might have changed the dynamic for Eleanor by drawing her into activities that suited her, managing the crying roommate better, or creating a more playful scene in the cabin. Leaders should remember that it’s often easier for people to see the glass half full after they get to sip the better half.
- Summer Camp Is Not for Everyone – At some point, most leaders have experienced polarizing feedback during project debriefs, climate/culture surveys, or audience feedback on presentations they deliver. These summer camp letters illustrate how challenging it is to design programs and processes to meet everyone’s needs. While it’s not practical to customize the workplace for every employee, a leader can be flexible in coaching, mentoring, guiding, and teaching. Some will thrive and grow at “summer camp,” while others benefit more from a very different learning journey.
Just imagine what your staff/employees might write in letters that describe “a typical week in their life at work.” How many letters would sound like Eleanor’s? How many like Jackson’s? What might you learn from their stories? How might you change your management style so that the stories end with sunshine, swimming, sailing, and baseball?