In the big game this Sunday afternoon, highly trained players will coordinate their activities as precisely as they can against the onslaught of the other team. If all goes according to plan, the quarterback may throw the ball to a certain spot on the field where his receiver is supposed to be at just the right time. They call it teamwork. It is a thing of beauty when it happens!

Durst phil
Senior Extension Dairy Educator / Michigan State University Extension

Yet, in order for that reception to happen, the linemen may have had to improvise to handle a blitz, the quarterback may have had to leave the pocket created by the linemen, and the receiver may have had to put some moves on the defender to create separation. Each one, though they work with a playbook, makes adjustments depending on the situation.

It may be hard to see your farm operating quite like that, but it can happen.

Teamwork captures the different strengths of each person, provides backup for others and works for the goals of the team, rather than for the desires of the individual. As you are able to build your team and encourage teamwork, you will be more likely to reach your goals.

Rate your teamwork

In the research by Stan Moore and myself, we asked employees from 13 dairy farms to rate the teamwork within the dairy (on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 equaled “very poor” and 5 equaled “very positive, we work well together”). The overall average from 172 employee responses was 3.87, which doesn’t seem so bad. However, the employees on the highest rated farm rated teamwork at 4.83 and the employees on the lowest rated farm rated it at 2.71. I would much rather work on the farm that rated it high than the one at the other end of the spectrum.


Comments made by employees centered around three areas: helping one another, communication and supervision. Here are some examples:

  • “It is very, very good. If I can’t do something, there is always somebody that will be able to help me.”
  • “We get along well; we help each other.”

Compare those positive responses with these comments:

  • “There are some co-workers that don’t do much hard work. They are always waiting for somebody else to do it. There is no communication.”
  • “There are people that just work for the check and don’t pay attention.”
  • “Co-workers don’t help each other. If something breaks, people try to find somebody to blame.”

It is easy to tell by those responses where work gets done efficiently and the workplaces that are more productive. But what does it take? We believe that there are seven requirements for good teamwork:

  1. Leadership
  2. Understanding and commitment
  3. Communication
  4. Clarity of roles
  5. Trust
  6. Accountability
  7. Investment

Yet, our research shows that often farm owners and managers are lacking in one or more of these essential ingredients. Consider each one and evaluate your management and think about what you can do to strengthen it in terms of these requirements.


Teamwork must be initiated right from the top – the owners of the operation. They must embrace each employee as an essential team member, capable of contributing and integral to the attainment of the operation’s goals. There are various ways that owners must demonstrate that leadership, but among them is that multiple owners will work well together and not have conflict at the top.

Understanding and commitment

Part of the hiring process should be to tell prospective employees that they would be joining a team and that their purpose is to help the business attain certain goals by working in concert with the other team members. They need to understand this from the start and commit to it. As you deal with personality conflicts, disagreements and failures, remind employees of that commitment and the importance of teamwork in order to attain goals.


Intentional, regular efforts must be made in order for all the people involved to know what is changing, how performance compares to goals and if additional work is necessary. Whether you do that through meetings or less formally, the burden is on you to communicate effectively. There must be two-way communication between owners and managers and employees, where the owners also seek and listen to input from employees.

In addition, there needs to be good communication between employees, specifically between different work shifts or farm crews. Facilitating that may involve whiteboards for notes, overlapped shifts for updating or phone texts that go to all members.

Clarity of roles

Though we expect employees to help each other (therefore, we must communicate that), they also need to understand their primary roles and what they are responsible for. And while the input of each team member is valued, decisions must be made, communicated and followed. If a decision is made by someone with the authority to make the decision, whether that is a frontline employee or the son of the owner, they should not be lightly overridden. When they are, it undercuts the authority of the one who made the original decision.


Employees willingly follow those they trust. Stephen M. R. Covey in The Speed of Trust says that trust is based on character and competence. Your employees’ perception of your integrity and your ability to lead will either build their trust in you or diminish it.

In our research, when employees were asked to “rate their supervisor on working to improve the operation” (scale of 1 to 5, where 1 equals “seems to be coasting” and 5 equals “always seems to be looking to improve one area or another”), 26 percent rated their supervisor with a 1, 2 or 3. They apparently were not inspired to trust the competence of their boss.

Not only do they need to trust you, but you need to trust your employees. All too often, employers will not trust employees. Your trust in them is built the same way – through evidence of their character and competence. Their competence should grow with time and learning.


Even as we give responsibility to employees, we need to hold them accountable for results. It is not truly responsibility if they are not accountable. However, in holding them accountable, we also need to allow them to make mistakes and to learn from them, just as we have. Take time to follow up on assignments and review the results with the employee. This is an opportunity to provide needed feedback.


Building and maintaining a team takes ongoing investment on your part of both time and resources. We can’t say that we want teamwork, and the benefits it brings, and then not invest in it. That investment will mean spending more time talking with employees and placing more of the work on them. It may also mean buying pizzas or something else to just spend time together relaxing and talking about the business. However, be aware that investing money without investing time will not produce teamwork.

Build your team

Maybe you recognize that there are areas in which you fall short. Let me suggest that you sit down with your employees and honestly discuss how you want your business to operate and confess what you haven’t always done right. Bring them in as partners with you to build that teamwork and even be accountable to them to more consistently build your team through the seven areas above.

When you are willing to make the changes in how you manage, you will more often see the beauty of the results: Touchdown!  end mark

Also read "9 ways to encourage and guide your employees."

Phil Durst is a senior educator in dairy and beef cattle health and production with Michigan State University Extension. Email Phil Durst.