Do your employees think about your dairy the same way you do? Do they think about the long-term good of the business? Or are they focused on what’s in it for them?

These don’t have to be mutually exclusive goals. You can all come together for the common good.

It’s called the concept of “we.” And it’s a highly possible outcome if you are willing to change how you and your staff interact, and modify how you view your relationships.

Getting to “we” is not just about teamwork. It’s about fostering a fundamental change in how employees view your dairy business, says Bernie Erven, professor emeritus at OhioStateUniversity. It is an employee-by-employee transformation. And that change must begin at the top — with you.

Here’s how to begin the process.

1. Top management must commit to the philosophy.

This concept requires buy-in at the upper-most level of your management team. Everyone must be on board and agree that this is a beneficial mission.

Remember, managers will take their cue from you. Consistent action and commitment is needed from the entire management team.

There is a huge difference between leading transformation and managing transformation, says Erven. “Employees are not going to come to you and say they want to call this business ‘ours,’” he says. It must be a top-down strategy

Furthermore, you must remove any barriers that prevent success. “In working with operations to improve teams, it isn’t unusual to find we could only get so far before we hit a roadblock,” says Don Tyler, personnel-management specialist at Tyler & Associates in Clarks Hill, Ind. 

2. Develop a supporting organizational culture.

Define your dairy’s culture. Think of it as the personality of your business.

Determine whether your culture supports a “me” or a “we” commitment. That is, evaluate norms, standard ways of doing things and what is said and modeled for all employees. Does your culture encourage teamwork, personal growth and responsibility?

“If your solution to human-resource problems is to fire people, and you feel that fear is a better motivator than any other way, then you have a culture that does not support ‘we,’” says Erven.

If you are unsure of your dairy’s culture, ask a few valued employees or consultants familiar with your business for their input. A spouse or family member may also offer valuable input. Make sure these individuals know that their answers will not have negative consequences.

This process may not be for everyone. If you are not prepared to accept this feedback or make changes based on this insight, you may want to delay your journey to “we” until you are prepared to deal with the answers.

3. Hire the right people.

Avoid loners and change-avoiders when hiring new employees.

Some people do not function well in a “we” culture. During the interview process, ask questions that probe an applicant’s ability to work well with others. Determine whether they like to be included in a group culture, if they can adapt to change, and if they desire to be part of a business that succeeds due to the contributions of many people performing a myriad of tasks and responsibilities.

Ask yourself if this person fits the vision of where the dairy and its culture are headed.

These considerations apply to family members, as well as non-family employees.

4. Unfreeze, change, refreeze.

To accomplish the conversion to “we,” you must change habits and ideas. This applies to managers and employees, and can be accomplished using the process of “unfreeze, change and refreeze.”

During the unfreezing step, managers use direct, indirect and subtle means to convince employees that they need not be the actual business owners in order for the dairy to be “ours.” This helps overcome the deeply imbedded custom of separating business owners from workers, says Erven. Yet it may take weeks or even months of constant reinforcement to accomplish this.

Once that thought process has been modified, employers and managers must think and say “ours” and “we” rather than saying “I” when referring to accomplishments, plans and needs. For example, “We had excellent milk quality this month.” Or, “We need to make sure the bunker is well-packed this season.” These statements eventually become second nature, and a new habit is born.

However, expect resistance during this phase, because the old way was comfortable and the new way is not comfortable yet.

Give it time. After this verbal change becomes habit, guard against the tendency to revert back to the old way. This is the refreezing phase. Continually reinforce “we” and “ours.”

5. Delegate and empower employees.

To retain success, you must push responsibility and authority down the organization. “Advocating ‘ours’ without delegation and empowerment is nonsense,” says Erven.

Make employees responsible for specific areas or tasks. Of course, the ultimate responsibility lies with the delegating manager, but delegation enables workers to know how, when and at what cost things get done in their area of responsibility.

Give employees the right to make decisions, take action and direct their own actions. This is empowerment, which gives employees a specific sense of being enabled.   They know that they can contribute to the business — a needed step toward “we.”

6. Communicate.

The entire concept of “we” is based on communication. Top management must communicate messages about commitment, values, norms of behavior, change, delegation and empowerment in a timely, sensitive and accurate manner.

Since listening is a key part of communication, you must also hear and understand what your employees are saying in these areas.

Use job descriptions, orientation for new employees, training and regular feedback to communicate and promote the “we” concept. Also, use tools like employee handbooks, staff meetings, cell phones, bulletin board, message centers and suggestion boxes to increase and improve communication among managers and employees.

“Above all, the free-flowing and informal daily communication on a first-name basis is essential to the ‘we’ environment you are cultivating,” says Erven.

7. Reward positive results.

Finally, make rewards consistent with the “we” vision. Avoid rewards geared toward individual performance. Instead, reward the attainment of group goals. For example, profit-sharing, group incentive programs, employee-voted performance recognitions and co-worker performance evaluations are all highly consistent with the “we” culture.

Why try? Attaining a “we” culture takes work. it takes a lot of a manager’s time. And it may decrease efficiency in the short-run while changes and adjustments are under way. In addition, individual egos may suffer, making this a difficult transition.

But when they work, “we” environments bring about increased commitment to the business, increased likelihood that a teamwork structure can be successful, reduced employee turnover, higher motivation, more interest in training and willingness to accept new responsibilities and more self-discipline, says Bernie Erven, OhioStateUniversity professor emeritus. Plus, it’s easier to hire quality individuals because of your dairy’s reputation as a good place to work.

Remove barriers

The best-laid plans do not always succeed. if you are trying to build better teams on your dairy without much success, you must identify the obstacles that prevent teamwork and then remove these barriers to teamwork development, says Don Tyler, personnel-management specialist at Tyler & Associates in Clarks Hill, Ind. “When you get these things out the way, teamwork falls into place.”

Tyler says managers must investigate the following barriers:

  • No vision. This can be small, such as not knowing why a specific task is important. Or it can be big, such as not knowing where the operation is headed.
  • Low morale.
  • Selfishness.
  • Egos and personal agendas.
  • Inconsistency in expectations, policy application, how decisions are made or how work is assigned.
  •  Inequity among employees.
  • Lack of training.
  • No ground rules for standards of behavior.
  • No support from superiors.
  • Bias, bigotry and holding grudges.