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10 tips to enrich your dairy’s culture

Monty Miller and Neil Michael for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2018

Note: This is the seventh and final article in a series about dairy culture.

Since 2015, we have offered the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) test to document cultures on dairies.

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Fifty-three dairies participated in the program, representing 564 employees, 160 managers, 78 owners and 30 consultants (veterinarians and nutritionists).

The OCI data gives producers a novel view of their business culture that may ultimately impact their reputation in their communities and their ability to attract and retain the best employees.

The practices encourage dairy owners, managers and employees to move beyond perceived behaviors and implement new behaviors. The importance of evaluating and enhancing culture is: It helps the entire team gain confidence their work environment may be enhanced to make progress toward the ideal culture.

Get to ‘ideal’

“Highly constructive and positive cultures” are the most desirable cultures to achieve from a human resources perspective and represent the ideal culture for dairies to aspire to. These constructive and positive cultures also support the production of quality milk and animal well-being, a win-win for dairy farms, team members and consumers.

However, not every dairy is operating at that sought-after cultural level. Based on survey data, there are 10 behavioral norms OCI participants cited as behaviors “to do more of” to enhance their cultures – actions you can implement on your dairy too.

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1.  Engage your team in decisions.

Engage those for whom the change will have impact. Conversations might include questions such as, “Our somatic cell count is above 150,000; why do you think this is occurring?” “What are the options for addressing the problem?” “What is your recommendation for implementation?”

It can also be beneficial to ask employees how they define that the goal has been achieved. This helps gather input and determine knowledge and understanding at the same time.

2.  Engage conflict; don’t ignore it.

It’s difficult to think of anyone who likes “dairy drama,” but it happens all the time. One reason may stem from owners and employees selectively communicating with people they have good rapport with while failing to openly communicate to the larger group. If you don’t nip this unhelpful conflict in the bud, it festers and grows – becoming normal instead of unacceptable.

When handled constructively, criticism can often be a source of innovation. Immediately engage the conflicts through good communications. Conversation may start with, “I have heard …” or “It has come to my attention that …” Emphasize it “takes a village” to accomplish your farm’s goals.

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A “straight talk” conversation with your team shows you care, you are on top of operations, and you wish to focus on the organization’s well-being and that of its employees.

3.  Focus on what’s right, not wrong.

It is easy to see what is not working. But how often do you see things being done as expected, done right, and you keep on walking or driving and don’t say a word?

It is the small stuff that makes the difference. When you see an action being done well, immediately give team members recognition. Encourage your team to find ways to offer positive reinforcement to each other.

It may sound like, “How I just saw you handle that cow, that was great! That is the way we want to treat our cows with care. Thanks for being a great member of our dairy!” Explain why it is important and reinforce. Remember “PPCP”: Praise in public; counsel in private.

Finally, say, “Thank you for doing this and the good work you do on the farm.” A pat on the back goes a long way to fostering a positive culture. Also, develop expectations and goals for your team and formally recognize excellent performance.

4.  Encourage good to happen; don’t wait for it.

As a leader, you see the range of skills and capabilities of your team. However, leaders often fail to point out strengths; therefore employees do not know what their leadership knows.

If you don’t point out the good, you don’t get the best behaviors from people. Help people see, feel and hear what you experience. Encourage them to do more of it; it works.

People thrive when they feel they are believed in. This is a pretty easy conversation to have: “How you just explained proper udder prep to Juan was excellent; please keep it up. I encourage you to do it even more. When and where do you feel you can apply it for other situations?”

Thank them for their great work and always positively reinforce desired behaviors.

5.  Build constructive human relationship skills.

No. 5 on the desired behaviors list is difficult to define. It may be described by what it is not. It is not being an autocrat, dictator or ogre.

Are you an ogre? If you are avoided, ignored, feel like people don’t pay attention to you, you feel a constant need for control, you are isolated, you strike fear in the hearts of others, and everything feels like a battle, you might be an ogre.

There are many reasons why intentions are perceived differently than intended. First and foremost, be honest and recognize how you are perceived. Change starts when deficiencies are acknowledged. Ask for help, and do three critical things:

  • Listen

  • Listen

  • Listen

Then say, “This is what I am hearing you say.” The person is likely to say, “Yeah and …” Listen more and summarize. Then say, “I need your help. What can I do differently?”

Finally, thank them for their honesty and practice what they have coached. This feedback, when it comes from a sincere individual, is a gift – treat it as such. The results will be dramatic for you, your people, your friends and your family.

6.  Encourage your team to think.

The greatest gift leaders can give to others is confidence in their critical thinking. Help your team problem-solve, make decisions, innovate and be creative. The most basic things leaders do is build the skills and knowledge of their people, enabling them to make good decisions and choices.

It sounds like, “What do you think is going on?” “How should it perform or what should we expect?” “What are ways of doing it differently?” “What do you recommend?” “What is the plan for doing it?”

Then, review, learn from mistakes and recognize success.

7. Focus on human well-being.

People want to be more important than things. This basic leadership concept encompasses, “How you treat your people is how your people treat your customers.” For most dairies, the customers are the cows and calves. Therefore, emphasis on human well-being pays dividends in animal well-being too.

Take care of your people; listen, engage and involve their whole bodies. Agriculture traditionally uses muscle, but engage people’s brains. This will result in creativity, innovation, commitment and loyalty.

Strive to make your dairy culture fun. Fun for adults is when they are intellectually engaged and respected. A fun culture is a magnet and enables owners to attract and retain the best team.

8.  We, not me

The OCI program has demonstrated dairy producers look for many ways to support employees, including everything from farm visits by ophthalmologists to give eye tests to providing employee loans and helping with immigration issues and housing. But it’s also about paying attention to employee needs for doing jobs safely and well.

This may sound like, “I just saw you do this during clean-up. We are concerned about your safety and recommend a safer way to handle this task. Let me show you, and now you try it.” Listen, do, discuss, respect and consider their point-of-view if they make a good point. Be open to new thinking.

9.  Listen to thoughts and feelings. 

Often, to get to the facts, you need to listen to feelings first. Most employees are highly kinesthetic or learn best by doing; their feelings and emotions are usually readily accessible.

One way to facilitate this is to communicate with people in their comfortable space or where they work – walk with employees and do their jobs with them to show them you understand and care about what they face every day.

This allows the auditory, visual and kinesthetic aspects of learning to be used to communicate their feelings and thoughts. This also helps when employees may have trouble communicating from a language standpoint – when they are in their comfort “space,” they are more open to learning.

Starting with, “How does this make you feel?” will open up the conversation and then, as you progress, help you obtain needed details and facts.

10.  Actions, not words

Finally, role-model the practices and behaviors you want to see, hear and feel on your dairy. Actions speak louder than words. Owners, leaders, managers and family members must walk the talk. Be the change you want to see.

Changing behaviors in cultures takes time and patience, so pick one or two practices to focus on with your dairy’s leadership. It’s far more productive than attempting to implement all the practices at once. If you have stated farm values, align the desired behaviors with the values, as people appreciate alignment.  end mark

Note: OCI references are from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, Michigan. Copyright 1987–2015. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Monty Miller is the owner of International Performance Solutions, a consulting practice that engages in training, development and organizational change. Dr. Neil Michael is a veterinarian and the global technical services manager for Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition.

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