National Aquatic Safety Company

Poker Face

by Dan Warren

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. ” 
— Sun Tzu

If you have run a facility for any length of time and you don’t operate in Shangri-La, you have experienced a staffing shortage. Sometimes these lifeguard shortages can be quite humbling to an operator’s ego. One finds themself faced with the dilemma of personally “riding the stand” if they can’t find a guard to replace the “call-in” / “no-show”. Worst-case scenario – you find yourself faced with two empty stands to fill and the possibility of having to close an attraction.

So -You turn to your team for support.

It’s amazing how a 16 year old adolescent can transform from a good natured kid into a tyrant drunk with power in a few seconds, right in front of your eyes. Only those who have suffered this experience can truly relate to the indignity of the situation. If you are able to corner a lifeguard prior to their leaving the facility they inevitably have prearranged dire plans that would prevent them from staying late or working a double. If you are successful in enticing them to stay, it generally comes at a price – e.g. tickets, meal, time & ½, etc. If bribing a guard was a one time occurrence it would be a bearable affront to your leadership prowess; however, word travels fast and the masses immediately smell “blood in the water” and many of your team morphs into an aquatic bartering conglomerate –  all having conditions for which they will fulfill a favor.

Any leniency or courtesy you have paid them in the past seem quite inconsequential when compared to potential perks. Unfortunately, there is no panacea for insurrection. Your best offense is a Poker Face. Appearing desperate is a sure fire way to transfer all negotiating power to your lifeguards. Caving into a single lifeguard landslides into an army of lifeguards all with unconventional demands for working outside of their scheduled shift. Taking a firm stance from the summer’s onset and sticking to it may very well prove to save you a lot of professional heartache in the long run.

As your staff dwindles with the waning of the season take a posture of strength instead of weakness to preserve the respect of your staff. If instead of bribing a guard you close an attraction it could help keep other rides open longer in the end. Unless you have an inexhaustible supply of perks for which to bribe staff, entering into this inducement trap can be very costly while yielding just about the same outcome of if you had not. Sticking to your guns is a scary proposition when it comes to having “Mexican Stand-Offs” with lifeguards. It’s a gamble but my money is on setting clear performance expectations from the get-go, communicating an easy to understand incentive plan for hours worked, and never letting them see you sweat.

While an emotional storm rages underneath, your Poker Face reflects a placid / polite surface.