Now more than ever, dairy producers need to focus on the productivity of their farm operations using an inside resource: their employees.
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Freelance Writer
Melissa Hart is a freelance writer based in Michigan.

“When it comes to management, employees are a critical part of the business and, whatever their job, we need their minds involved,” said Phil Durst, an educator with Michigan State University Extension. Durst and his extension colleagues, Stan Moore and Martin Mangual, presented a session on human resources and labor management during the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference, held in early February in Frankenmuth, Michigan.

While the physical work of an employee is crucial, dairy producers need employees for their ideas and decision-making. “This is a critical aspect of the employee we need to capture more of,” Durst said.

Because it is becoming more difficult to find good employees, developing them into productive assets should be a priority.

“Availability of employees has changed remarkably in the last 10 years,” Durst said. “There are just fewer people available to work on farms. This ought to tell us we need to manage those employees a whole lot better, because we can’t replace them.”


Defining ‘work ethic’

Durst highlighted a book by Eric Chester, Reviving Work Ethic. In the book, Chester defines work ethic as employees knowing the right thing to do and doing it. Chester says a work ethic is marked by seven qualities: positive attitude, reliability, professionalism, initiative, respect, integrity and gratitude.

“I want to change your mindset from being an employer to a business leader,” Durst said. “An employer is a passive term, but a business leader is someone who leads the business and leads the people in all of the business aspects.”

One question to consider: Is everyone striving toward the same set of goals? Creating goals with the input of your employees is an opportunity to improve work culture, and it will provide them with some ownership and responsibility.

“You as a business leader have a role in your employees knowing what to do and in doing it. You have a role in the work ethic of your employees and in accomplishing the goals of the business,” Durst explained.

Chester’s “Work Ethic Matrix” (Figure 1) shows all people, at any given time and with any given task, are on two continuums that determine their work ethic: the “Cognizance” continuum that extends from “Don’t know” to “Know” and moves from left to right; and the “Compliance” continuum that follows from “Don’t do” to “Do” and moves from the bottom to the top.

The work ethic matrix

According to Chester, the four quadrants created by the intersection of these two continuums describes all individuals at any given time:

  • The lazy or idle employee. Employees in this quadrant are those who “don’t know” and “don’t do.” They are doing nothing and waiting for instructions – but still charging the employer.

  • The cheating employee. Employees in this quadrant are those who “know but don’t do.” An example would be the employee who sees something that needs to be done, but it’s not his responsibility, so he doesn’t do it.

  • The lucky employee. Employees in this quadrant are those who “don’t know but do.” This employee doesn’t always know what to do, but they watch others and follow along, even if it may not be the desired way.

  • The valued employee. Employees in this quadrant are those who “know and do.” This is the definition of work ethic, and this employee returns value to the owner and is the desired category for all employees.

“We want employees to do what they know,” Durst said. “Training alone doesn’t achieve that. To move people up the compliance continuum takes coaching or mentoring.”

While business leaders may not be comfortable in the coaching or mentoring role, it is necessary in order to help employees become valued partners.

Mangual, an MSU Extension dairy educator, pointed out that while all employees can be valuable, they are not all valuable on all areas of the farm. Training these employees and putting them in positions where they have the greatest potential to excel will create valued partners.

Extrinsic versus intrinsic

The carrot and stick approach to management is popular on farming operations, but that doesn’t always work, said Stan Moore, dairy and human resource management educator with MSU Extension.

“The carrot is a reward for employees for doing a job, and a stick is for the employee who doesn’t do the right thing,” Moore said. “The problem with this kind of extrinsic way of management is: It doesn’t really work. Extrinsic motivators cause us to narrow in on one task instead of the entire picture and protocol, and it slows people down because they don’t know what to do if something goes wrong.”

Intrinsic motivators, those internal to the individual, have been proven to move people to action. There are four core motivators: competence, autonomy, relatedness and purpose. When a business leader helps meet these basic needs of employees, they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated and stay in the job.

Increase competence

Teaching employees gives them competence, Moore noted. This will help them become experts on the tasks you have asked them to do. Once they are competent, give them autonomy, the authority to do their job and make decisions. But with that, you also need to agree on the standards they are expected to meet.

“Autonomy does not mean hands off, but it means trusting employees to handle problems when they come up, and this will help motivate employees,” Moore explained.

Coaching employees in the core values and culture of your business will meet their need for relatedness.

“Research we have done with farms shows the relationship with the supervisor is still huge, and newer research is saying good employees will look for that ahead of time,” Moore said.

Also, showing employees the bigger picture and helping them see how important they are in influencing the farm success will give them purpose.

Mangual posed several questions: “Do you have core values and goals? And does your team understand what they are? Do they know what’s happening in every area of the farm and why everyone is doing what they are doing?”

Goals are the compass guiding the way your operation is managed, Mangual advised. Break the overall objectives into smaller goals that employees can directly impact, take ownership of and track their progress.

“Remember the vision of what you are trying to achieve. As business leaders, we need to continue to learn because we never know it all. And we need to be continuously teaching. The end goal is having employees as a valued and functioning part of your business,” Durst concluded.  end mark

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer in North Adams, Michigan.