I was talking with a farmer a few months ago and asked him how many employees he had working there. “Oh, about half of them!” was his response. That’s a common sentiment among business managers, be it a farm with three employees or a manufacturing company with 3,000: Is everyone contributing to the cause?

Farm leaders can be in an especially tough spot – rural areas with fewer candidates, little or no prior experience with managing people, a small enough staff that the role of manager full-time isn’t full-time. This combination can leave a farm leader feeling like he can’t meet the farm’s needs.

Here’s a situation that illustrates the level of tension you might experience when you feel you have no options: An employee, who happened to also be a relative, had developed the habit of showing up and leaving at will. The employee would sometimes go for days without calling or coming to work. The farmer felt trapped because he needed the help, feared upsetting the employee and didn’t know what to do about the situation

This feeling of being held hostage is not uncommon. I’ve seen it on farms with employees who steal fuel, drink on the job and turn in false hours. Fortunately this behavior is the exception rather than the rule – but the lessons are there for us.

You don’t get a highly productive staff by accident. It’s a result of the leader’s deliberate actions and communications about where the farm is going, what needs to get done and what is and is not tolerated. The illustration is the Blake-Mouton Model, which shows that to create a teamwork environment of contribution and commitment, there needs to be a focus both on the person (he wants to do good work and be a part of a winning team) and a focus on production (any business has critical work that must get done – and done well).

So with this model in mind, the farm leader has a few responsibilities:

  • Create a vision and details of how work should get done on the farm. Communicate the vision for the farm and ensure that for the critical processes, the best-known method is documented and implemented. This can reduce some of the errors that may get us frustrated with employees.
  • Communicate (which includes listening) regularly with your employees. Demonstrate care for the person and seek his input, but also clarify what must get done on the farm. Clarity is important. Remember, in the face of uncertainty, people do… nothing.
  • Develop a bench. Even if you aren’t hiring, you can build a list of people to begin recruiting when the time comes. That list could include former part-time help. Build a reputation in the community as a good place to work. Talk to college recruiters. Get creative.