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Want productive workers? Spend more time listening than talking

Small talk is a big deal for many workers. Spend a little time getting to know them and they’ll help you reach your operational goals.

Burt Rutherford

August 20, 2019

5 Min Read
Feedyard cowboy

Talk to just about anyone in animal agriculture—beef, dairy, hogs—about the things they worry over most, and finding not just good help, but any kind of help at all is at the top of the list.

And finding employees is just the half of it. Then you have to keep them.

Given that most ag employees are Hispanic, that many of them don’t speak English and many of them have no experience with livestock, the challenge becomes even deeper.

Noa Roman-Muniz knows this. She’s a veterinarian at Colorado State University (CSU) who specializes in training foreign-born dairy and feedyard workers. She was born and raised on a dairy in Puerto Rico, so that’s her knowledge base. But what she’s learned through research and experience is important for anyone who hires foreign-born workers.

“When I first started this, I thought that everything had to do with language and culture. And I was dead wrong.”

Why? “These people are going to have a bunch of challenges that you and I might not understand, like social isolation and precarious employment, sometimes limited education and literacy. A lack experience with agriculture. So how do we get to them? How do we educate them?

READ: Can we solve the ag labor shortage?

That’s the challenge, but it can be overcome, she told more than 100 people who attended the Stockmanship and Stewardship sessions at CSU recently. Indeed, for any livestock operation to thrive and be sustainable, it must be overcome.

“If the workers are doing well and feel like they have more wellbeing on the farm, they’re going to perform better. In turn, the animals are going to be healthier, are going to enjoy more wellbeing,” she said. “The consumer, because after all we’re producing food, is going to be healthier.”

Where does it all start? With the manager.

“Managers are key. It’s that simple,” she said. “For years and years, I’ve been going to farms and training workers, but if management is not on the same page and if management doesn’t follow up and if management doesn’t do the right thing, it doesn’t matter.”

However, it appears there’s a disconnect. She’s found that many workers describe the relationship and communication with managers as negative. Workers say training is inconsistent or even non-existent. Another source of frustration is a lack of clarity regarding job duties. “People don’t know what their job description is. And they feel that there’s no communication between areas of the operation.”

That’s frustrating for workers because they have pride in their work. “So that adds to the frustration. [They say] ‘I want to do my job well, but I don’t even know what my job consists of.’”

READ: Are you a great manager? Take the test

That’s where a good manager can make a huge difference. Workers say a good relationship with managers happens when the person is accessible, fair, knowledgeable and a good communicator.

It all starts with listening.

“I cannot stress that enough,” she said. “Hold regular meetings, follow through. If the gate is broken and needs repair, let them know when you think that the parts are coming to the farm.”

Feedback is critical, but how you give it matters.

Feedback should be timely and it should be constructive. “And what I mean when I say constructive, I mean positive. People are doing things the wrong way. You actually need to tell them, but when you say this is not being done correctly, you should be constructive. So you should provide ways, ideas, support so that people can work correctly. You should tell them why and be specific and then provide options for improvement. And timely. We should say things in a timely manner.”

In fact, no feedback is worse than negative feedback. “Because no feedback means that I don't care about you, what you do doesn’t matter,” she said.

Feedback doesn’t need to be formal, however. “Small talk is a big deal,” she said.

READ: Hiring 101: Finding the right candidate for the right job on your ranch

In interviews with workers across the animal agriculture spectrum, she said the first thing that every worker said is managers don’t say hi in the morning. Workers say, “I want people to say hi to me in the morning. And when they ask me how I am, I want to know that they are actually listening because I want to tell them, and I want to know how they are.”

Small talk is not really small talk, she says, because by asking someone a simple question and stopping for 30 seconds and listening, you can get an idea of what they know and what they don’t know; how they perceive problems and where they need help. “And you can understand what’s of value to them.”

As well, think of your audience. And be congruent with the audience you're talking to. “And if that means that you have people who didn't finish high school, don't have a booklet full of paragraphs. It's not gonna work. A picture says a lot more,” she said.

While correct interpretation is important, that’s just the start. “Think about what’s relevant to their reality. Provide context. As adults, we learn better when we have context.”

That means focus on the why. Explain how a new protocol will benefit them. “And that’s the why. Why do you need to know this? Why do you need to treat the cows this way?”

While language and culture are important, she learned to change her focus and not concentrate on how those things separate us.

“The reality is that we need to find common goals and what's the commonality. It's not being blind to differences because differences are real and differences affect the way we behave and how we go about our lives,” she says.

“But if you focus on what everybody has in common on the operation, and that's healthy and productive animals, you can work toward those goals. And raising an awareness of what we have in common, instilling that sense of mutual care is essential.

“So regardless of color and language and level of education, it's the same goal for everybody. We need to focus on what unites us. So we must invest in developing effective managers that are seen as facilitators, that are seen like they want to engage people, they want to help people and they want to see people thrive. They will actually create that [positive] work environment.”


About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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