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An unrecognized complementarity

Bob Milligan Published on 31 December 2015
  • “Farming is a way of life.”

  • “I love the animals.”

  • “I can’t imagine doing anything else but being a farmer.”

  • “We are stewards of the land.”

We have all heard these statements from dairy farm owners and their families. They clearly illustrate the reason people farm has to do with more than productivity and profitability.

To understand this seeming contradiction, we must understand the complementarity of two parts of our brain. The heartfelt statements above emanate from the feeling part of the brain.



These statements are strongly felt but not easily quantified and communicated. The rational part of the brain embraces quantifiable measures like productivity and profitability.

Recent experiences and learning have enabled me to better understand that the two parts of the brain are truly complementary, even synergistic.

Explaining this complementarity is the purpose of this article. We will see that this complementarity is the key to a passionate and engaged workforce – and maybe even a better way to connect with consumers of our products.

To understand this complementarity, we need to know more about how our brain functions. I also provide an extraordinary example of this complementarity.

How does our brain create this complementarity?

Think about a time when you tried to explain to someone why you love him or her. Describing love is difficult because it, as an emotion, resonates in the part of our brain called the limbic brain.


Emotions are felt in the limbic brain, but this part of the brain has no capability for language. Language comes from the rational part of the brain, the neocortex. The neocortex is where we make decisions, set goals and measure outcomes. Most of us are very comfortable communicating the rational thoughts and ideas that are processed in the neocortex.

The limitation of only operating in the neocortex is that rational measures and thoughts do not create feelings of engagement, commitment and pride. These emotions come from the limbic brain.

For farmers, focusing only on quantifiable measures of productivity and profitability is easy. Benefitting from the complementarity to create an engaged workforce requires articulating and communicating the feelings that resonate in the limbic brain.

An example

I have written before about my passion for the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team and the growth of its coach, Brad Frost. An article in the March 21, 2015, St. Paul Pioneer Press captures his growth from a coach using a neocortex-based goal – winning – to creating a culture built around the complementarity of the two sides of the brain.

I begin with this quote from the article:

Coach Brad Frost took the Gophers women’s hockey team to consecutive Frozen Fours in his first two seasons, but something was amiss.


At the team’s season-ending banquet in 2010, Frost saw his players and their parents still stewing that they didn’t win two national championships. Then he turned inward.

“It was my fault,” Frost said. “As a young coach, I was focusing on ‘Hey, we’ve got to win the Frozen Four. We’ve got to win the Frozen Four. And that’s going to determine whether we’re successful or not.’ That’s what the players focused on because it was what I focused on.

“And then when you don’t win, you’re like, ‘OK, I guess this was a failure,’ and it wasn’t. Just to get to the Frozen Four is a big deal.”

Frost’s focus on winning resonated with the players; it did not, however, enable the players to truly engage in and appreciate their efforts and successes. It did not capture the complementarity of the rational and feeling parts of the brain.

From Frost’s introspection, he concluded that one thing that was lacking was gratitude. He then began setting goals for the team that were not defined by wins and losses. Frost talks about success being in effort and desire. He also says the secret to winning is to focus on the process that will produce wins, not on the wins.

To increase gratitude, and to evoke more meaning to the players, he added three values to gratitude: tough, disciplined and devoted.

Continuing from the article:

“The first year we did it (the four values), it was just words on the wall (at Ridder Arena),” said Frost. … “It wasn’t completely implemented and really invested into our program.”

Now Hannah Brandt, a standout junior center, said those values are reinforced almost daily.

“It’s definitely something that we all try to live out,” Brandt said. “They (the coaches) set a great example for us.”

The key here is the complementarity that Coach Frost developed. The four values, the focus on effort and desire, and the constant emphasis on the process transformed winning from a goal to an outcome. I believe this change has greatly enhanced the meaningfulness of the experience to the players and has motivated them to live the four goals.

By the way, Frost’s women’s hockey team has won three of the last four NCAA championships. The complementarity works.

What about complementarity for dairy farmers?

Relating Frost’s journey to farming, for farmers the equivalent of wins and losses is productivity and profitability. They are crucial, but they do not represent the emotionally grounded opening statements. Productivity and profitability need to become the outcome, not the goals.

As with Frost’s experience, the development of this complementarity is not easy or instantaneous. I suggest you use these three steps:

  1. Recognize that meaning is derived from something with more meaning – emotions – than profit or productivity. Success comes from the complementarity of the rational and the feeling parts of the brain.

  2. Introspection and discussion: Identify what provided meaning to the farm’s founder and the current owners. This will not be easy, as you will have to put into words the emotions and meanings that are not well understood in the neocortex. Finding the words is necessary to be able to develop messages that will resonate in the limbic brain of family members, employees and other stakeholders.

  3. Create and adapt for your dairy farm a slogan, a vision or mission, or a set of values that represent the farm’s meaning that can then be communicated to employees and other stakeholders. This meaning must reflect the emotions you feel for your farm.

    Examples of a set of values could be pride, determination, stewardship, passion. Examples of a slogan reflecting the vision or mission could be “provide food for a growing world” or “we support families just like ours.”

A final note about the complementarity

For several decades, we have debated about whether farming is a business or a way of life. The results of this article illustrate that success requires a synergistic combination of the two. Too great a focus on business, the rational part of the brain, will likely leave the farm business workforce lacking in commitment, engagement and passion.

Too great a focus on a way of life, the feeling part of the brain, increases the risk of low productivity and profitability outcomes leading to business failure. The key is the complementarity.  PD

Bob Milligan
  • Bob Milligan

  • Senior Consultant
  • Dairy Strategies LLC
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