Editor's note: This article ran in the March 2011 edition of Dairy Herd Management.

George Bernard Shaw once said the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

Overcoming this illusion can be a challenge for dairy owners. Years ago, nearly every dairy farm was owned, managed and all tasks were performed by the owner and immediate family, and maybe an employee or two. Management focused on the cows and managing them — not on people and how to manage them.

But that’s not how things are today. Running a dairy is now about managing the people who manage your cows.

In order to manage, supervise and lead people, owners and managers must invest time and effort to learn how to manage people. Use these tips to help improve your people-management skills.

Be a student of body language

Body language speaks volumes as to how your message is being understood.

“Body language can give you clues if an employee understands what you are explaining, if they agree or if you’re upsetting them,” says Noa Roman-Muniz, extension dairy specialist with Colorado State University. 

A verbal response may say one thing, but body language may say something completely different, she says.

An employee might answer “yes” to a question, even when he or she hasn’t understood or disagrees on how to best perform a task. As managers, we must understand that employees are hesitant to disagree or ask for further explanation because that might be perceived as a sign of disrespect, depending on their cultural background, explains Roman-Muniz. A manager who is aware of body language will pick up on these subtle cues of understanding.

Eye contact is also a part of body language that gives you insight if your employees understand what you’re saying. “Look into your employees’ eyes to see if there is any doubt there to see if the “yes” they gave you was confident, or if they appear to be confused,” says Juan Velez, senior vice president of farm operations with Aurora Organic Dairy. It’s also important to know that employees will sometimes not look directly into your eyes, since this is a sign of respect in some cultures.

Don’t forget about the message your own body language is conveying to your employees. Conveying the right attitude and showing your employees respect and gratitude can break down a lot of communication barriers, Velez adds. 

Explain why

Take the time to explain the “why.”  If you don’t, then you are expecting your employees to learn by mistakes. And, mistakes in the dairy industry can be very costly.

Explain to employees, “If you follow the milking protocol, fewer cows will get sick and the milk will be better quality. In turn, your job will be easier because you will have to take care of fewer sick cows. Better-producing and healthier cows mean a stable job and income and possibly more opportunities for you.”

To ensure your employees understand, have them describe back to you what you’ve just explained to them. This will help you make sure your message has been clear and understood and give you an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings.

Use common terms

Understand that many of your employees come from different backgrounds and have various levels of formal education. Do not assume that your employees understand the science behind protocols or their daily tasks.

It’s important to explain things in examples that they can relate to everyday life and to use words easily understood by all. “Your employees may not have a science or animal husbandry background, but many of them are parents,” says Roman-Muniz.

In this context, you can explain the importance of hygiene during calving. For example, says Roman-Muniz, many workers assume that if they perform a vaginal exam, the cow will end up with metritis. When Roman-Muniz trains employees, she explains that in human hospitals doctors perform vaginal exams frequently and women do not end up with uterine infections. This is the case because doctors take all of the precautions and only perform the exams under strict hygienic conditions. If you improve hygiene when examining cows, metritis will occur less often.

Ask questions

Take the time to ask employees how things are working on the dairy operation. This action can resolve frustrating situations, says Roman-Muniz.

For example, one particular dairy added a new calving facility, but employees were not using it. There were many difficult calvings and calves were dying. In employee meetings, the owner would complain that the employees were not using the facilities. But at no time did he ask why the employees were not using the new facility. It turns out that one person couldn’t shut the gate and put the cow in the chute by themselves. The dairy fixed the situation by providing a list of people that it was OK to call away from their jobs to help.

If you don’t tell an employee it is OK to pull a person from his or her job to help, how would he know it is OK to do this? Roman-Muniz points out.

Your employees may have very good reasons for doing something a certain way, but you need to take the time to follow up and ask them how things are going. Your employees may have valid suggestions that would improve your productivity, but you may never know if you don’t ask.  In addition it sends the message that you value their experience, says Roman-Muniz.

Asking questions can also be beneficial when hiring new employees. Instead of asking “yes” or “no” questions, such as “have you milked cows before?” ask them to tell you how to milk cows and to provide descriptions.

Listen, listen, listen

Listen to your employees to send the message that you care.

Talk to your employees about their family, not about the weather. Something as simple as saying “good morning” opens up the lines of communication, says Velez.

Then, listen to their responses. Knowing that a child is sick and asking how he or she is doing or how the employees’ family is doing will help improve employee communication and relations. Your employees have lives and concerns beyond the dairy, just like you. Taking the time to know who is working for you will improve your operation.

Listening will also help you to find out who has aspirations to go further on the dairy. It’s important to make sure employees understand if they will have opportunities to further themselves at your dairy, says Roman-Muniz. Don’t assume that they know they have a chance for advancement.

Provide feedback

Once an employee has been trained, it’s important to provide feedback.

Share information with them, says Roman-Muniz. Tell them if they are doing a good job and also provide areas where they can improve. Feedback should be positive and constructive and given as soon as possible.

Feedback keeps them paying attention to the details that go into daily tasks, she says. And, if you want your employee to be a good manager, teach him or her to be a constructive coach to other employees. Leading by example is an effective way to make this happen.

Conflict resolution

Lastly, provide employees with a means to resolve conflicts.

When employees have a conflict or issue, instead of having them just complain, ask them to come up with one or two solutions to the problem or ask them how to make it better. Make them a part of the process to give them accountability. This allows them to be invested in the success of your operation.

These are just a few of the things that can help you open up the lines of communication with your employees. There is no manual that tells you everything you need to know about managing people, but through experience (and a commitment to learn) you will learn it, says Roman-Muniz.

Tips for success

The following tips may also help you improve employee relations and communication with employees.

•   If employees in the parlor do a good job, buy a pizza or food from a restaurant they like to show your appreciation.

•   Get involved with your employees when something on the dairy breaks down.  They need to see you want to help them.

•   If an employee has children who are going to school, ask how the children are doing and provide verbal recognition when the student does well in school.

•   Help employees learn English.

•   Learn Spanish.

•   Bring in outside parties to provide training on laws. Laws vary from country to country and employees might not be aware of those differences. This will help your employees integrate better in the community, as they will know the rules the U.S. plays by, says Noa Roman-Muniz, extension dairy specialist with Colorado State University.

•   Invite a banking representative to come to the farm and share information on opening bank accounts and saving.