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'We have taught our employees not to think'

Bad habits tolerated today become accepted as part of the farm culture tomorrow.

“We have taught our employees not to think,”  a dairy farmer told me not long ago.

While he didn’t want to admit it, and he certainly wasn’t proud of it, that comment was the beginning of a needed change. And that’s good news.   

Whether it’s careless employees, bad attitudes, or family fueds, problems don’t just happen overnight. Most problems take time to grow and mature.

Let’s use this analogy. What started out as a small weed now towers over your head. So now you let it be because it’s too hard to pull out.

That’s what happens when small problems are “tolerated.” Over time there is an implicit endorsement that it’s okay. It’s acceptable. But it’s not okay. Like a field choked with weeds, a family farm will choke on what is tolerated.

What do you tolerate?

What you tolerate comes in two forms. What you tolerate in your leadership and what you tolerate in others.

Let’s look at both using employees as an example.

Intolerable Hiring: A hiring process that hasn’t proven successful, but leadership doesn’t change it.

Here is a scenario. Someone quits, so there is a rapid search made for someone, anyone, who can show up and do the work. There is seemingly never enough time to get all the work done and hire a new employee. Thus the hiring process is rushed.

The employee comes on board and is thrown into the deep end with little onboarding. No one follows up. No one asks, ‘how are you doing?’. It’s assumed that all is okay until the employee quits to “pursue other opportunities.”  

In this case the farm manager-owners tolerated a poor hiring and onboarding process. There were several excuses: not enough time, not good enough candidate, etc. These may be true. But when leaders tolerate a poor process, one that has not worked in the past, can we expect the future to be different?

Intolerable Management: Employees are just average enough not to get fired.

These workers are nice people, but they can’t work without constant supervision and handholding. Average people, even family members, will only give your farm average results. Yet too often we settle for just average because we don’t want to deal with the tough issues.

Here is a real scenario we recently ran across. As the labor market tightened, the farm’s employees started slacking off. Nothing was done about it. Management was afraid to rock the boat. Eventually these employees needed constant supervision to stay on task. Then management lost confidence and started to micromanage them.

The good employees and the poor ones all were micromanaged whether they needed it or not. Ideally the owners would be able to delegate tasks and trust employees to solve problems. Instead, they had a mix of employees who came back to the owners with every possible question. It got to the point where each of the five owners would field dozens of calls each day for the most mundane problems. The employees didn’t have to think and problem solving wasn’t encouraged.

It all fell on the owners’ shoulders and the weight took a toll on farm productivity. And it started with tolerating the bad habits of average employees, which then spread throughout the farm. The bad habits became implicitly endorsed as part of the culture.        

We could have talked about inaccurate accounting, untimely production, family conflict, unbalanced workloads between partners, or safety violations. The list is long of things that are tolerated in a farm business.

What’s the fix?

Sometimes it’s not tolerating your own management errors, and making a change before asking others to change.

And that dairy farmer who taught his employees not to think? He is back on track, training and delegating decision-making to some key employees. His progress looks very promising and the average employees are picking up their game. 

What a relief.   

Tim Schaefer is an executive management coach and succession planner for farms and agribusinesses. Read his blog, Transitions and Strategies, at FarmFutures.com. If you have a management or succession planning question, contact tim.schaefer@encore-consultants.net 
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 
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