Leadership depends on relationships. When farm employees are connected to you and the people on your team, it can boost performance and help create an organized, high-functioning operation.

Barge emily
Communications and Marketing Manager / Center for Dairy Excellence

However, communicating with employees of all backgrounds and skill levels is easier said than done. How do you address a tough situation with an employee? What if you have nothing in common? Do you really need a job description for your team?

Rich Stup of Cornell University’s Pro-Dairy addressed these questions and others during a Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE) webinar, “Transforming Your Team: Employee Communications & Management.”

How do I address something tough with an employee?

It’s important to build an “emotional bank account” with each employee even before a tough situation arises.

According to Stup, deposits are built on actions, especially from a management perspective, to increase the balance in each employee’s emotional bank account. These include actions such as keeping promises; performing small acts of kindness; displaying loyalty, especially when times are tough; actively listening and giving your full attention to the person so you can truly understand what they’re trying to say; offering sincere apologies and setting clear expectations. Making positive emotional investments into these accounts ultimately builds trust with employees.


On the other hand, there are actions that will quickly deplete an emotional bank account. These “withdrawals” might involve breaking promises or unintentionally being disconnected, such as not saying “hello” or making eye contact. Not listening to employees or acting in arrogant or dismissive ways can also hurt the level of trust.

When you are faced with tough subjects or conflicts you must address, your past actions matter, Stup said.

“If you have bad news and need to make a lot of ‘emotional withdrawals,’ it’s going to be a lot tougher if your bank account with a person already has a low balance,” Stup explained. “But if it has a full balance and you have a very strong relationship with a lot of trust, the negative thing you have to address is going to be a lot easier for the employee to receive.”

In addition to past actions, attitude and demeanor matter, Stup said. Are you always rushing to solve the next problem? This can make it difficult for employees to approach you. Consider setting aside part of your workday to be visible and available to talk. If you work to provide openness, respect and fairness to all employees, it shows you care and take them seriously.

“Managers can get so busy running around and solving problems that you forget to take time to be available for employees. Sometimes this is simply walking around and popping in to say hello,” Stup said. “Give positive feedback, ask if they have any questions, and learn what people want. If you want to know how to give positive feedback, ask your employee how they like to hear it. Little things add up to make a big difference on how communication flows on your farm.”

Do I really need a job description?

Managing employees involves setting clear expectations. According to Stup, there are two types of expectations: behavioral and performance.

“We often think about performance first, such as how much milk we’re going to produce or how the calves are going to be managed. But behavioral issues can be more problematic than performance issues,” Stup said.

To outline reasonable expectations for behavior on your operation, it’s important to share your answers to these questions with employees:

  • What time do I arrive for work? Am I supposed to be ready at that time, or does that include time to get dressed, put my lunch away, etc.?
  • How should I treat the animals?
  • What type of attitude is acceptable?
  • Who should I go to when I have a question?
  • When can I use my cellphone?

After you define your behavioral expectations, you also need to share your performance expectations. This describes the basic performance expected of everyone on the team, which might include zero tolerance for animal abuse or your expectation that every teat should always be clean.

“When we are clear about our expectations, employees are much more likely to achieve them. In so many cases, I go to farms and they haven’t been clear about that,” Stup said. “Even with farm transitions where the senior generation wants to step back, you need to clarify your expectations for that transition. Are you coming in once a week now? What responsibilities are you still doing?”

To help you establish these expectations and clearly communicate your work experience to employees, there are several tools available to help – including job descriptions. Are they necessary for every type of role?

“Not if you’re going to stash them in a drawer. Don’t bother. You should only write job descriptions if you’re doing it for the right reason, and that’s to be absolutely clear about what the expectations are for a particular person,” Stup answered. “On many farms, it has never been clarified which family members or partners are responsible for which decisions. By writing job descriptions and talking about it, we can avoid a whole lot of conflict and identify expectations for everyone.”

Another tool to help set expectations is standard operating procedures (SOPs). For procedures you need to train employees on, such as setting up the milking parlor, Stup suggested combining photos with short, step-by-step directions. If you have a multilingual workforce, photos make it easy for anyone to follow the steps. SOPs can also help you build consistency, especially with larger groups of employees who each perform tasks a different way.

“The purpose of SOPs is to control variation that people introduce into a system. It makes training much easier and makes accountability clearer,” Stup said. “Ultimately, we put a milking SOP in place so everyone milks your cows the same way. If we’re not consistent and employees are doing things different ways, your system will be out of control.”

Stup reminded individuals the importance of explaining the “why” behind wanting a certain level of consistency with a particular task. Maybe consistency will help with livestock growth or animal health, so knowing the deeper purpose can help employees feel engaged and not micromanaged.

My team speaks two languages, so how will they ever interact with each other?

Bridge the gap in multilingual workplaces. If you’re going to hire people on the farm who speak a different language, Stup encouraged owners and managers to take responsibility for overcoming language barriers. You can consider using an interpreter when there are difficult things to communicate, but he warned that is not the whole answer.

“The day something goes wrong or there’s a safety issue on the farm, an interpreter isn’t going to be there to help. From a safety standpoint, you need to be able to communicate with each other,” Stup explained. “The solution for that in the long run is to learn Spanish and be able to speak it. If we’re making that commitment to a multilingual workforce, we need to have the managers and owners begin to learn Spanish, even if it’s basic.”

Beyond taking Spanish courses, Stup said it’s important to invest time into breaking down cultural barriers. This can help forge a connected team, not a divided one.

“Encourage people to interact as much as possible. There’s an increasing situation where we have the milking crew who is all Spanish-speaking, and then we have the field crew who speaks English. A lot of times we have two groups [who] don’t communicate very much because of the barriers in place,” Stup said. “As managers, we need to take steps to break that down and create interaction to build relationships among your team. It’s hard work, but it’s well worth your time.”

What if I have nothing in common with my employee?

Communicate and build relationships with all employees. Leaders must consciously work on building relationships with the people they want to lead, Stup said. Communication and relationship-building go hand-in-hand – and without both of them, it can be difficult to influence the employees around you.

For managers who don’t view themselves as extroverted or social, Stup shared suggestions for topics that are simple to talk about with employees. Consider talking about your background and interests, and shared hobbies or family and kids. This sparks natural connection and can help you build an authentic relationship. For employees who don’t have shared interests with you, Stup reminded attendees that you will always have one thing in common: your work.

“If you’re trying to force topics when it doesn’t interest you, it’s simply not going to work. Some people just aren’t into small talk. In those cases, the work itself can be our commonality,” he explained. “There’s nothing wrong with having a business relationship built around the work itself, the dairy industry or the type of production you’re in. If the work is what you have in common with employees, talk about it.”


When you can create long-term, trusting relationships with employees, they will know you have their best interests in mind. If they trust you are looking out for them, you can ultimately build your influence and credibility when managing your team.

“Your leadership really depends on the relationships with the people you supervise,” Stup added. “You want to have greater influence as you try to lead people, so they believe us more clearly and we can get the kind of results we want to achieve.”