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Managing employee conflict: Cows can be the easy part

Jack Hales and Barry Visser Published on 22 August 2014

In today’s busy world, with all our electronic forms of communication, conflict can arise very quickly. Workplaces have evolved from authority-controlled (where people are told their specific tasks) to participative-style (where employees work as functional teams).

It is impossible to live without conflict. As with all things, it is about how you handle the situation. We have all heard the comment, “Roll with the punches.”

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Identifying conflict
By definition, a conflict is “a serious disagreement or argument, typically a prolonged one.”

What creates a conflict on your farm?

Occasionally, “big picture” conflicts can arise due to things such as cultural differences, but most often conflicts are caused by factors such as opposing positions, power struggles, egos, pride, compensation issues or someone just having a bad day.

Dairy owners and managers wear a lot of different hats. The care and comfort of the cows is of utmost importance but, some days, managing the cows is the easy part. The biggest conflict from the cows’ perspective may be resolved by moving the dominant cow to another pen.

It’s not so easy with people. It has been reported that up to 25 percent of a manager’s time can be spent handling conflict. Because people on a farm are often close to each other, personal and work lives may be hard to separate.

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Two primary forms of conflict occur in the workplace:

1. Communication: This generally means lack of information, poor information or no information. Clear, precise, accurate and timely communication will help ease both the frequency and severity of these conflicts.

2. Emotions: We have all been told to “check your emotions at the door.” Do not let emotions drive your decisions.

Preventing conflict
Is it possible to prevent conflict? Conflict, in some form, is guaranteed to occur in any business. However, it is possible to prevent (or lessen) some workplace conflict from occurring with effective communication. Most operations have farm manuals or written protocols in place.

We have found these manuals provide great training for new employees and also a standard procedure for seasoned employees. They can be an excellent foundation to give farm managers confidence that tasks are completed in a consistent and timely manner day after day.

What we sometimes fail to include in these manuals are acceptable employee behaviors. Don’t assume but create a framework for sound business decisions. Encourage team-building and leadership development.

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Have clearly defined job descriptions; employees want to know – and need to know – what is expected of them on a day-to-day basis. Clearly make it known what will be tolerated and what will not be. Remember to be fair with your employees.

When conflicts do arise, these manuals should be updated to prevent similar issues in the future. Engage your employees. Get their input as you develop the best strategy to move forward.

Addressing conflict
When a conflict arises on your farm, how do you effectively deal with it?

If conflicts are managed correctly, they can actually help your farm grow and prosper. In contrast, if you neglect conflicts, they can negatively impact employee morale, teamwork and turnover. Legal issues could also arise.

Try to anticipate the conflict, but be calm. Don’t argue or make accusations. Use your listening skills to determine the root of the problem. Are you addressing the correct conflict or is an underlying event the real cause of tension?

It is important to understand the employee’s position. Identify each person’s reason or motive for conflict. Look at the factors in the conflict. Also recognize and identify the personality styles of each person involved.

The best way to avoid conflict is to know what motivates your employees. If you can approach situations while taking action that will best achieve your employees’ goals, then you will find few obstacles in your way in regards to managing conflicts.

Research has identified several models of conflict management. One model is “high activeness,” which is characterized by openly discussing the issue while still going after your own interest. The other model of handling conflict is “high agreeableness.” In this model, all parties involved discuss their differences of opinion. This type is characterized by attempting to satisfy all parties involved.

We have found the high agreeableness method to be extremely helpful on farms. For example, an employee and manager may disagree on how a procedure should be done. Let the employee explain his or her procedure. If you feel the employee and teammates will get the task done consistently, allow it to happen.

Several tasks on the dairy need to be done a certain way for a certain reason, but we have found this method to be very effective as people also have a tendency to buy in to the procedure if it is their own. Thus, they will also become more efficient.

Learning from conflict
Pick your battle and know when you need to intercede in a conflict. If you do step in, make sure it gets resolved. Negotiate a solution by making concessions. When appropriate, this approach can also build employee respect.

As mentioned earlier, if handled correctly, every conflict provides change, and that provides an opportunity for your farm to grow. Every conflict comes with a teachable or learning moment.

Different opinions and styles addressed properly can motivate minds in an amazing way. Agree to the problem. Let your employees become engaged so they can take ownership. Look for possible solutions.

Then actively observe how your employees are reacting to that decision. Is this a positive result for the farm? Is this a single situation or is this something that should be changed in the protocol manual? The overall outcome has to fit the needs and goals of your farm.

Conflicts are unavoidable in the workplace and in everyone’s personal lives. Timely resolution can be found among employees and owners if all involved are willing to change. Be confident in your ability to deal with others and remember your rights as an employer. Bring an open mind to a conflict discussion.

Sometimes you have to compromise, find common ground, be an active listener and put your employee above yourself. This will help you build rapport among your team members. If all else fails, and gaps cannot be closed, do not resort to playing favorites. Be fair and consistent and do the right thing. PD

Barry Visser is also a dairy specialist with Vita Plus.

jack hales

Jack Hales
Dairy Specialist
Vita Plus

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