6 Simple Ways to Engage Your Farm Employees

We tried something new at the Dairy Summit this year by hosting discussion group sessions on three different topics. One of those topics was employee engagement, and we asked a human resources consultant and a manager at a large dairy farm to facilitate the discussion. It was well attended, with close to 75 people in the room. Many of those who attended were herd managers trying to figure out how to better engage their team to improve results for their dairy. I sat in on the session and was impressed at how fluent the conversation was.

Folks weren’t afraid to ask about how others were handling things like quality bonuses, employee appreciation events, and training around written protocols. They also didn’t hesitate to share what they were doing if something on their farm was going particularly well. Unfortunately, it was one of only three sessions at the Summit we didn’t record. At the end, we asked the group who was interested in attending more regular discussion groups about employee engagement throughout the year, and many of them raised their hands. Hopefully it’s something we’ll be working on with Penn State and Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania in the coming year.

Employee engagement is all about connecting with your employees, so they feel connected to you, to your business, and to delivering on your goals for the business. It may sound simple enough, but I think many people in management roles would admit it’s not as simple as it sounds. Up until I became director at the Center, I never worked in management and had my own opinions about how easy it was to manage people. But honestly, I have struggled a little bit in the role because it does take intentionality and commitment to manage a team well.

To improve my own abilities in this area, I started listening to webinars and podcasts. Recently I heard one that offered six simple things you can do to engage your employees. Here are those six things.

  • Ask for feedback. Employees need to feel comfortable coming to you with their ideas and suggestions. So, find the appropriate time and ask for their feedback. If you are taking time to do one-on-one check-ins with your employees, this is a perfect time to do it. Otherwise, schedule a time to talk. Ask them how you are doing as their supervisor, how you can help them achieve their goals, and where they see opportunities for improvement in your processes.Not every suggestion you get is going to be something you can implement. However, if someone is brave enough to offer a suggestion, make sure you thank them and take the time to consider objectively how that suggestion could affect the business. If you do implement it, recognize them publicly for the suggestion so others feel confident in sharing their own. Never criticize someone for coming to you with a suggestion for improvement, even if it is something you do not think will work.
  • Know about people’s lives and what their goals are. One of my favorite sayings is, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In the discussion group, several folks talked about how they host picnics, have Christmas parties, and celebrate milestones as a team. Some talked about helping out when an employee’s family member had a health issue. Others talked about how sometimes taking the time to just ask an employee about their family or their interests can go a long way in establishing their trust. You also need to know what their goals are, and sometimes that starts with asking. You may have just hired a calf feeder who one day wants to be a herd manager, but if you never ask them, they may end up leaving to go to a job where they can get that opportunity. Knowing about your employees first starts with listening to them.
  • Be vulnerable. Employees need to know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, even the boss. If a manager acts like they are perfect and expects perfection from their team, team members are more likely to hide mistakes when they happen, which can lead to problems down the road. Be transparent in your own mistakes and in the areas where you can improve within the business. Your employees will see you more as a partner and someone who is supporting their success in their role, rather than just the boss they have to please.
  • Be consistent. Most farmers grew up working around animals. We learned quickly that animals remember when someone becomes angry or impatient with them. No matter how calm that person is the next time they are around that animal, the animal is often still nervous and agitated by that person. People are the same way. That is why it is important to be the same person in every situation. Don’t fly off the handle one day and expect your team to forget about it the next day when you walk in calm and relaxed.
  • Have integrity. As a manager, we need to set an example of what is acceptable behavior. If you expect your milkers to follow specific protocols in the barn, make sure you are also following those protocols. If you expect your employees to put away tools correctly in the shop no matter how busy they are, make sure you do the same when you’re rushing to get something fixed and get back in the field. The same goes with how you treat others on your team. If you expect your employees to treat each other with respect, make sure you are giving them that same respect when you are interacting with them as their boss. Saying “thank you” and acknowledging their good work goes a long way, too.
  • Follow through. This is as simple as doing what you say you are going to do. We all know that life on the farm has plenty of distractions, and it is easy to make an excuse when you don’t get something done. But if you want your employees to trust you, then they need to know they can count on you.

Someone once told me that if you think managing employees is easy, then you are probably not doing it right. That’s because it takes work to connect with your team. It would be easy to just show up, tell people what to do, then focus on what you have to do and expect everything else to run smoothly. But most times, that doesn’t work out very well in the end. The discussion group at the Dairy Summit demonstrated to me how many folks in dairy recognize the need to get better at engaging their team.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence.