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Motivation and mindset influence action on the farm

Steven Roche for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 November 2016
Mind set

Distracted. Ignorant. Complacent. Challenging. Just some of the reasons one might not make a change. We’ve all been there; motivating change is hard, period. It’s in these times when the saying, “You can lead a horse to water …” really rings true.

And it inevitably leaves us asking, “How the heck do you get that horse to drink?”



As with most agricultural commodities, change is in the air for the dairy industry. Changing technologies, genetics, farmer demographics, market pressures, consumer expectations; there’s opportunity for change at every corner.

And for an industry expected to produce safe and high-quality milk in an environmentally sustainable way, all while ensuring optimal animal care, the need for on-farm change has never been greater.

This August, the Hoof Trimmers Association set out to learn more on this by sponsoring a workshop in St. Cloud, Minnesota, aimed at helping trimmers motivate their clients. The following are some of the key takeaways I presented at the workshop.

Understanding behavior: Changing our approach

While there is no magic potion or catch-all technique to motivate change, farmer behavior isn’t as much of a Pandora’s box as you might think. So why is it such a challenge? Well, first off, we don’t often explore why farmers do what they do in any systematic way.

Look at how we address problems like lameness and calf scours. We evaluate the issue and work backward to identify the factors that contribute to the problem. A hoof trimmer might do maintenance trims for lameness prevention, while a veterinarian might vaccinate calves and evaluate housing and feeding to address scouring.


This approach works well for tackling all sorts of on-farm issues, and we’ve become really good at using it to address tangible (often visible) problems. But when it comes to understanding farmer behavior, we tend to lack the know-how on where to begin.

Here’s the best part: We can use the same sort of approach to understand behavior, except instead of being interested in mostly visible factors, we’re interested in what’s going on between the ears. In other words, we apply the herd health approach to the mindset of the farmer.

OK, so what sorts of factors are important to look at when it comes to farmer mindset?

A challenging assumption

When it comes to what motivates change, we typically make two flawed assumptions, often without even realizing it. First, we too often assume the person doesn’t have the knowledge they need in order to make the change.

Second, we assume that once they are informed, they will make a rational decision to change their behavior.

These assumptions work well for computers – but not for people. Yes, you must have the knowledge about a problem, and how to fix it, in order to make a change successfully. But what about things like biosecurity practices, gait scoring for lameness and record-keeping?


We know these behaviors should be routine, yet we see varying levels of adoption across dairy operations.

The bottom line is: Knowledge is not everything. It does not drive decisions about behavior alone. So next time you want to motivate someone to make a change, remember: It’s not all about knowledge and information. As a famous man once said, “You cannot reason a person out of something they were not reasoned into.”

Motivation and mindset

A person’s attitudes and beliefs about the problem and behavior, their goals and aspirations, social pressures and trust in sources of new information are some of the key factors influencing our decisions.

These are some of the factors we need to focus on if we truly want to understand how we can motivate someone to change.

Researchers have given us road maps for understanding a person’s behavior. The “Health Belief Model” is one such road map which explains some of the key factors that influence someone’s decision to make a change to improve health.

(This one works particularly well when it comes to herd health.) Using this road map, I’ve created five questions you can ask of the person you want to motivate:

  1. What are some of the benefits of making this change?

  2. What are some of the barriers holding you back from making this change?

  3. What is the impact of not making this change?

  4. How confident are you in your ability to make this change?

  5. Who or what can help support you in making this change?

Notice how these questions are designed specifically to get the person we’re trying to motivate talking openly about the issues, not simply providing yes or no answers. We need to have an open conversation to understand their mindset when it comes to the behavior and the problem.

Really listen to the answers; you’ll begin to understand their mindset. We all create a narrative about what works and what doesn’t, what’s important and what’s not; this reasoning isn’t always accurate, but we are very good at coming up with convincing arguments as to why things are the way they are.

Your job, as someone who aims to motivate to change, is to help the person examine that narrative and determine what needs to change.

Changing mindset with MI

Motivational interviewing (MI) is an approach, often used in counseling and therapy, which has been particularly effective at motivating change. Many of the techniques used in MI can be used to help understand motivation and mindset.

We start by exploring what motivation someone already has. One of the simplest ways is to ask them to rate their motivation to make a given change on a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is fully motivated and 1 is very little motivation.

Let’s say they’re a 3. Our typical approach is to respond, “What can I do to get you to a 10?” Straightforward, right? The problem is: The answer to this question focuses on external reasons or needs (like incentives or penalties) that might motivate them to change.

Instead, try saying, “OK, you’re a 3; tell me some of the reasons you’re not a 2.” In this MI approach, we are asking the individual to explore his or her own motivations. They themselves told you they had some motivation; where does it come from?

What follows is a more positive and focused conversation on what motivation they do have and the reasons for making the change.

Now we want to build up their motivation. We continue our conversation about their motivations by asking questions that get them to explain, in their own words, why they should make a change; we elicit “change talk.”

The questions from the Health Belief Model are good examples. Other questions you can ask include: What are the top three reasons for making this change? Why consider this change at all? If things worked out perfectly, what would be the result of this change? The goal is to have them explain and defend reasons for making the change, which we support and encourage.

There are many useful MI approaches, but the point is to have the conversation (often more than one) about motivations and mindset. This can and should be done with family members, staff and on-farm advisers.

If you’re a farmer, consider some of these questions in relation to a change you’re looking to make. If you’re an adviser, start asking these questions of your clients. These are the building blocks of motivation and on-farm change.

Back to the horse

Yes, you can lead that horse to water, but you certainly can’t make it drink. OK, carrots and sticks work sometimes, but incentives and penalties are ineffective motivators and don’t work long term. We need to dig deeper. Why the heck won’t that horse drink in the first place? We need to understand motivation and mindset.

Change is tough, and it doesn’t happen overnight. There is no one-size-fits-all approach because motivation and mindset are unique to the individual. So start by asking questions, go beyond knowledge and awareness, listen, discuss and explore the factors that influence each person and work together to motivate on-farm change.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: By Kristen Phillips. 

Steven Roche
  • Steven Roche

  • Director and Principal Consultant
  • ACER Consulting
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