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Emotional intelligence is key to good animal care and team culture

Richard Stup for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 December 2019

When I was a youngster, I had a hot temper and was involved in more than my share of fights. There’s a story in my family about the time an older, bigger kid took a donut from me.

The ensuing brawl only stopped when we were forcibly separated by adults. I learned to control my temper in high school. If I fought in school, I wouldn’t be allowed to play football. One day a notorious bully provoked me, and I almost exploded, but the thought of not playing flashed in my mind and I regained control. That school policy helped me learn about consequences and the importance of controlling my emotions.



Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and control one’s own emotions and to recognize and influence the emotions of others. People with high emotional intelligence are usually able to control their mood and understand the effect they have on others. In stressful situations, a person with high emotional intelligence recognizes others’ emotions while working to bring everyone back to a more rational place. In contrast, people with low emotional intelligence often miss signals about others’ emotions and sometimes react to stress with strong, destructive emotional displays. Employees with poor emotional intelligence can be a liability to your business. They might become frustrated and abuse a cow or calf – or worse, they could lash out against other employees. That lashing out could range from physical assault to destructive team behaviors.

Managers have opportunities to select and manage for emotional intelligence.

Reference checks

The first opportunity is during employee selection. Managers should evaluate prospective employees before hiring, even when dairy employees are hard to find. Ask for references and follow up with them. Ask pointed questions about how the person deals with frustration and stress.

Behavioral interviewing

When interviewing a job candidate, ask the candidate to describe for you a difficult, challenging or stressful situation he or she had to work though. Ask detailed questions about how the candidate felt and acted at various points in the story. What emotions did he or she experience, and how did they deal with them? These detailed, behavioral questions should give you a good idea of how your candidate deals with emotions and stressful situations.

Setting expectations and consequences

Just as I learned the consequence of fighting at school, you can set consequences for dysfunctional behavior at work. Establish clear policies against serious problems such as animal abuse and violence. Publish these policies in your employee handbook, review them in new employee onboarding and ongoing training, and enforce them fairly and consistently. Clear expectations and consistent discipline can go a long way in avoiding the majority of these types of problems.


Part of being a leader is helping others grow and become a better version of themselves. I once led an experienced and high-performing employee who had an anger management problem. He was superb with customers but frequently impatient and sometimes explosively angry with co-workers. I knew he was a kind person at heart and was partially unaware of how harsh he was in these angry outbursts. In several disciplinary/coaching sessions, my strategy was to provide him a mirror of his behavior so that he could see how he came across to others; it was an image he was not proud of and became motivated to change.

The outcome was positive. He learned new techniques to manage his emotions and built much better relationships with fellow employees.

As a leader, you have opportunities to work with existing employees to improve their emotional intelligence and become more successful in their work and life. Consider the following ways you can influence by example and through explicit coaching and training.

Role modeling

Many people lack positive role models of high emotional intelligence. As a manager, you can model behavior patterns that might help an employee both at work and in other aspects of their life. Employees pay more attention to actions than to words, so make sure you model patience and understanding with employees and never let your frustration with a cow lead to harsh treatment.

Training and coaching

Managers can help employees by directly training and coaching healthy and effective ways to manage emotions and work situations.

  • Recognize. We all have triggers that tend to set us off. Reflect on the situations that tend to upset you the most and help employees to do the same. Once you understand these triggers, make plans to manage them whenever possible. For example, if rushing to get ready for herd check in the morning before the vet arrives is constantly frustrating the herdsman, change the script. Push some of the prep tasks to the day before herd check and delegate some extra help for the hours right before it.

  • Relax. Cows can be difficult and frustrating; with some people this can lead to abuse of the animal. Train your team to break that pattern by literally stepping back and walking away from it for a moment. Rather than using brute force, it often makes sense to step away, take some deep breaths and think about a different way to get the job done. In some cases, it makes sense to get some help: either an extra hand or a new idea to help get the job done safely for both animals and employees.

  • Reframe. People often build up unrealistic negative patterns in their mind. For example, they think inaccurately in terms of “always” and “never” in ways that tend to build up anger: “Why does this always happen to me?” “I never get a fair chance.” Talk with employees who struggle with anger and help them to “reframe” these thought processes. Help them to think more realistically and logically about the situation. Talk through ways they might change their own behaviors in order to get a different result; this approach helps empower employees to take positive steps to improve.

Emotional intelligence is an extremely valuable capability. You should attempt to select employees who have good control of their own emotions and do not have a history of problem behaviors. You can also take steps to help your employees avoid anger-producing situations and develop stronger emotional intelligence.  end mark


Richard Stup