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Labor Matters

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Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Never Forget What It Was Like

Nov 10, 2012

When managing your employees, think back to your own first job, previous employer or early mistakes.

Duvall, Shaun pro photo 1 11   CopyBy Shaun Duvall, Puentes/Bridges

The best piece of advice I ever received about teaching was what I have used as my title. When I was a first year teacher, Mrs. Wilson, with whom I shared a classroom, told me that if I wanted to be a really good teacher, I should never forget what it felt like to be a teenager. Another of her gems was to ask, when a child misbehaved or goofed up, “What did you learn from this?”

Whenever I was confronted with a young person acting in a frustrating way, I thought back to my days as a student, and some of the things that must have seemed very frustrating for my teachers.

I think this applies to being a good employer as well. Can you remember how it felt to have your first job? And if you never worked off the farm, can you remember how it felt to work on the farm?

If you had a good employer, he or she took an interest in you. They tried to help you do your best as an employee. They coached you, trained you, corrected when necessary, but also accepted that you would make mistakes, and then helped you learn from them.

If you didn’t have a good employer, you worked often in fear of being fired. How did it feel to make a mistake? And then to have to admit it? Or to inform your employer of it? Scary, wasn’t it?

Now, what if we used the mistakes less as a way to make people feel badly, and rather as a learning experience? Here are a few questions that I suggest you ask your employees when something has gone wrong:

1. Don’t ask why they did that. It only offers an opportunity to make a lame excuse.

2. Ask, rather, what was happening when the mistake took place? Were you feeling in a hurry, distracted, in charge, careless? What was going on in your mind at the time?

3. How do you think the mistake has affected the entire farm? Has it cost us money, time? How has it inconvenienced others and you?

4. What can and will you do next time to prevent this from happening again?

5. Try not to ask questions with a yes or no answer. You are looking for thought and input from the employee. It is too easy to just ask a yes or no question.

I think people will be surprised at first. They will feel good that they weren’t yelled at. It may feel odd at first, but in the long run, they will do a better job. The responsibility has been placed on them in answering the questions, and they are in charge of changing their behavior.

Think back to a time when you made a mistake. If it was met with understanding, compassion and a chance to be responsible and make it right, how did that feel? If it was met with punishment or blame or scolding, how did that feel? Good life lessons. Think in the long term. We are all moving toward being better people. Your employees are no different.

Puentes/Bridges is a nonprofit organization that, under Shaun Duvall’s direction, promotes cultural understanding, particularly in the dairy industry. Duvall also operates SJD Language & Culture Services, LLC, a translation and interpretation business. For more information, contact Shaun Duvall at or (608) 685-4705.

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