Communicate effectively

Communication is critical to creating a strong team. Good communication is essentially ensuring people are able to express what they are thinking and having others hear and understand what they have said. While this sounds straightforward communication breakdowns are common in work environments.

Open communication is essential for a dairy farm business to be productive. It:

  • helps set expectations and coordinate actions;
  • builds trust (knowing how others are feeling and why) and a sense of being a part of the team;
  • enables team members to share information and problem-solve by reaching a deeper understanding of the situation and issues;
  • enables people to act on facts not assumptions;
  • provides feedback on performance (and the opportunity to express appreciation for a job well done).

Exposing undercurrents

Joe and Marion are partners in a medium-sized dairy farm milking 310-340 cows.

The other members of their team are Mark and Nathan who work full-time, and Karen, who relieves on a part-time basis and also looks after the calves.

Recently, Joe has noticed that Mark and Nathan have been abrupt with one another. Nathan has become a little lax, turning up late and taking extended meal breaks. Mark has complained that Nathan isn’t pulling his weight.

Joe and Marion decided to do something about the situation. They arranged a meeting on a Monday morning when everyone was available and not distracted by critical farm chores. Joe began by saying that the farm was going well, but that he and Marion felt that things could be improved and that they were looking for suggestions. The group all began talking at once!

After some discussion it was apparent that there were differences of opinion within the group on the way things were being done on the farm. What’s more, there was tension between Mark and Nathan about who was in charge of the dairy. Nathan felt that Mark was not giving him enough encouragement and was too bossy. Nathan dealt with this by being defiant. Nathan also felt disgruntled by Marion taking over the calf rearing but expecting him to fill in when she was busy with the kids.

As a result of the meeting Joe realised that the roles and responsibilities needed more clarity and communication between people, especially when they shared jobs, needed to be improved.

Marion noted a need for a one-on-one meeting with Nathan. Both Joe and Marion thought that this would be good opportunity to start organising individual performance reviews for all of the staff. An element of the reviews would be clarification of each person’s role and, if necessary, amending their position description.

To help with communication within the team it was decided that the group would meet fortnightly and all staff would have input into the way things were done. A planning meeting for all staff was to be held at least twice a year to set goals for the farm’s performance. These goals would be monitored through the year and reported on at the fortnightly meetings.

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  • Relations are formal, stuffy or tense.
  • There is talk but not much communication.
  • Disagreements are aired in private instead of openly.
  • People do not agree on their responsibilities or work assignments.
  • Information isn’t flowing readily to and from management and between co-workers.

There are many ways of exchanging information and viewpoints – from informal chats in the shed and notes on the whiteboard to regular group meetings. Some techniques for improving communication on the farm are:

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Effective questioning

Questioning people in a non-threatening manner is a good way to make communication happen.

There are two types of questions: open or closed.

Closed questions limit conversation because they can only be answered with a yes, a no, or only a few words. Using closed questions limits conversation.

In order to get conversation flowing, try using open questions. These are questions that begin with how, what, when, why, which or where. These invite people to express their thoughts and feelings.

Open questioning is also a good technique for interviewing job applicants.

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Communication is not a one-off event – there are always changes to planned activities particularly in tough times such as droughts or floods or a difficult calving season. This means listening effectively and providing reassurance as the work is done and sometimes stepping in to help out if needed.

We listen to people every day, but how well do we do it? Truly effective communication relies on people listening with the intent to understand.

Explore all the reasons

Sometimes what you perceive as ineffective team work may be the result of misunderstanding a person with another personality, learning or work style.

Clearly expressing your thoughts and ideas
Presenting your ideas clearly helps others understand your messages. Think about what you want to say and state the key points. Don’t make assumptions about what people know. Explain the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. Giving clear verbal directions makes it more likely that the job will be done properly. ‘Go and get the cows’ provides a clear objective but it is not a clear instruction. More information means less uncertainty, for example:
  • Bring in the cows for milking.
  • Collect them from the top paddock, there should be about 280 in there.
  • Check that none of the cows dried-off last week got back in with the milkers.
  • Put them in the yard in front of the dairy and give Michael a call when they’re in.
Written standard operating procedures

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Put your message in writing

There are many occasions when providing a short written message to fellow workers can be the best way to communicate detailed instructions or directions.

Writing it down helps to make sure it gets done

The Robinsons have two full-time milkers on their farm and a relief milker who works on Wednesday afternoon and weekends. On Wednesday morning the full-time milkers noticed a problem with the milk vat and reported it to the farm manager. The manager has contacted the mechanic but he can’t make it until the afternoon when Julie will be in to relieve the full-time milkers.

As Julie is not aware of the problem, Steve left her a note to bring her up to speed with the situation.

Besides leaving notes you can also use message boards or whiteboards, which everyone checks when they arrive at work. Give someone the responsibility of keeping the information on the board up to date and for transferring the important information to a permanent location (e.g. the computer).

In recent times, text messaging has become a common form of communication. It is an effective way of relaying messages accurately, time efficiently and with minimal use of technology.

There are times when dialogue between people is important for relaying messages and in these cases it is better to speak with someone.

Follow up with a conversation if it is important

When something is really important, don’t just rely on written communication to inform people as there is no guarantee they will read it and read it in time. Follow up with a conversation.

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Give feedback

Giving feedback on work performance is an essential part of communication in a day-to-day working relationship. Feedback ensures that work standards are met and is also an opportunity to praise people when standards are exceeded.

Giving praise
  • Recognition of a job well done is one of the most satisfying aspects of an employee’s work and ranks well ahead of money in terms of factors contributing to job satisfaction. Praise provides recognition and is critical to ongoing motivation.
  • Regular praise motivates and builds trust and loyalty in people. However, it must be specific and attached to a particular action or piece of good work so that it has real meaning.
Corrective feedback
  • When things are going wrong it is important to deal with the issue as quickly as possible to avoid small problems becoming large ones.
  • Corrective feedback aims at getting the job done to standard.
  • Handled properly corrective feedback can be motivating for employees, as people generally want to perform, provided they believe they are being well treated.
  • The key to corrective feedback is to make sure that a lack of training or resource has not led to the problem arising. It is important to listen to why the problem arose.
  • A well-recognised model for giving feedback is the “I like… I would like” model. This starts out with the statement “I like…” and commends the person for things they are doing well. Using positive introductions makes people less defensive and more receptive toward change. This is followed up with “I would like…” and recommendations as to what the person must do to meet performance expectations. Once again, be specific about the behaviour and remember that the feedback is about behaviour and should not be a personal attack.

Coaching and mentoring are really valuable processes on farms which support individuals and also support a culture of ‘helping’ rather than ‘it’s not my job’ or ‘too busy’. Consider setting up a ‘buddy system’ on your farm.

DairySage Mentoring is an industry program to develop mentoring relationships across the dairy supply chain.

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