With the increased perception of conflict in society, employees may have a difficult time accepting negative feedback or managing conflict among team members. Especially with dairy farm teams that often involve family members, unresolved conflict can be detrimental to the productivity of your operation.
Barge emily
Communications and Marketing Manager / Center for Dairy Excellence

During the Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) “Transforming Your Team: Employee Communications & Management” webinar series, Rich Stup with Cornell Extension Agricultural Workforce Development shared strategies for communicating through conflict.

According to Stup, certain types of conflict can be productive, especially if it involves trusting teams that are seeking ways to improve.

“Not all conflict is bad. Some organizations can have productive conflict where people see things differently and people are willing to deal with those differences to have a robust conversation,” he explained. “If people have grown comfortable with that kind of conflict and have respect for each other, they can keep it at a productive level and not have it be a big fight.”

However, if the conflicts are rooted in differing personalities and include personal attacks, Stup says it can be destructive to the entire team. Knowing how to address conflict, understand its causes and work together to resolve it can help dairy farm families and teams enhance their communication and prevent misunderstandings.


What causes conflict?

When we talk about conflict, Stup says we are often talking about emotions. “I tell supervisors to trust your ability to read signs like body language. You may never hear the person tell you about a conflict verbally, but you can see anger reactions,” he shared.

If you begin to pick up on sharp words or heated body language from your team, it’s important to address the conflict and give the employee an opportunity to talk about it. While this can feel like an uncomfortable conversation, Stup says addressing conflicts in the early stages can help diffuse emotions and prevent them from growing into larger issues.

“If you try to avoid conflicts, the small ones don’t go away. They typically sit there and they grow. They become more and more problematic over time,” Stup shared. “This is a hard lesson most leaders have to learn. It’s much better to deal with them early.”

8 causes of organization conflict

It’s also important to know the root causes of conflict on your farm or within your dairy business. According to Stup, there are eight common causes of organizational conflict:

  • Conflicting resources. This could be direct conflict about the resources your employees need. Time can be a big source of conflict as well.

  • Conflicting styles. This might include your employees’ different styles of managing projects and meeting deadlines. “Some people want to have things done well ahead of time, but others get it done last minute. That causes conflict all the time,” Stup explained.

  • Conflicting perceptions. Two team members might experience the same situation but perceive it – and its implications – in entirely different ways.

  • Conflicting goals. Different family members, partners or employees might have conflicting business goals.

  • Conflicting pressures. If you have different managers and partners, this could be difficult for employees. “Your employees might have two bosses, which happens a lot on farms. They could hear one thing from one person and another thing from someone else,” Stup said.

  • Conflicting roles. Certain times of the year can be busy for different team members, especially in the agriculture world. Your teams might have different perceptions on what is important and what tasks need to get done.

  • Different personal values. Team members may have differing values and outlooks on work and life.

  • Unpredictable policies. Unclear farm policies can lead to employees not having their expectations met.

Leading by example

Once you have recognized a conflict within your team and understand its cause, how can you resolve it? How you respond to conflict as a leader sets the tone for how your farm employees will navigate conflicts and misunderstandings with one another.

Stup suggested creating the expectation that conflicts should be about behaviors and tasks, not about personalities. Being hard on the problem and easy on the people can keep conflicts solution-oriented and not personal attacks.

“If you have an incident where the cows got mixed up, ask your employees questions like: What happened that led that to occur? How can we make sure you know what’s happening so it doesn’t occur again? Is there something we need to change in the process?” Stup explained. “Work through the problem, not the person’s personality.”

Addressing conflict should also start with respect. Actively listening and working to understand can help your team realize that many conflicts are misunderstandings. Stup also encouraged dairy teams to search for shared interests as a way forward.

“We don’t always need 100 percent agreement, but we just need to improve from where we are. We need to resolve at least some of the conflict. A lot of times, we’re willing to compromise on the last 25 percent if we can find shared interests and get to an agreement on the other 75 percent,” Stup shared.

Resolving conflict with a four-step approach

If you set the expectation that conflicts will be addressed in positive, constructive ways on your team, Stup referenced the Harvard Negotiation Project as a four-step approach leaders can use to help their team resolve conflict.

1. Separate the people from the problems. Stup clarified this doesn’t mean checking your emotions at the door; instead, it involves processing emotions and reflecting on what is causing anger to find the true problem. Once team members identify the problem at hand, they may be able to consider how to salvage the relationship with honesty and openness.

“You probably don’t want to have a war with an employee or family member. You’re going to want to continue that relationship beyond this particular conflict. Think about that before destroying the relationship,” Stup suggested. “It’s OK to say, ‘I know we have this conflict, but I value our relationship and want to work through it.’ You’re probably gaining respect and strength from the other person when you say something like that.”

This step also involves looking at things from the other person’s perspective. Seek clarification, and be mindful of the medium of communication. For example, if an email or text message chain starts to become tense and problematic, Stup suggested picking up the phone. Simply switching the medium could resolve some of those conflicts.

2. Focus on interests, not positions. When communicating about conflict, talk about each of your needs. What are your interests? If you have someone who is leaving their shift early on Fridays and someone who is stuck finishing up, what are the possible interests of the one who leaves? It might not be what the other person assumes. Stup suggested determining what both individuals are trying to accomplish and discussing ways to make it fair.

3. Invent options for mutual gain. Be creative and invent different options that might help meet each other’s needs. What are some of the other ways you might be able to solve this problem? In many cases, creativity can turn conflict into opportunity.

“Your position or the other person’s (position) are seldom the only answers. Usually, we haven’t been creative enough about other ways we might be able to do this,” Stup shared. “How can you do it better than you’ve been doing before so you don’t have a conflict and you can both get what you need?”

4. Insist on using objective criteria. As you move forward, Stup reinforced the importance of measuring your solutions with objectivity and keeping track of your actions so your team doesn’t fall back into negative patterns. How is your group going to hold up their end of the bargain with one another? When resolving conflict, it’s always important to monitor your agreements moving forward. end mark

PHOTO: Staff photo.

Emily Barge is a communications and marketing manager with Center for Dairy Excellence. Email Emily Barge.