By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Families need to rethink themselves as “teams” when operating a family farm to utilize the expertise of each member because this increases productivity and efficiency, say relationship experts at Farm Credit Canada’s Young Farmers Summit.
With a parking lot full of pick-up trucks and the conference room at Bingemans Park in Kitchener full of young farmers, Dale Kerr started off the day making everyone get up and share something they were passionate about with someone they did not know.
It was a social experiment revealing many people felt a little bit vulnerable and anxious being forced out of their comfort zone. “That’s normal…every animal goes through some level of social anxiety when meeting another species,” said Kerr, a hobby farmer, host of the documentary Hello, Goodbye and author of Living Lightly. “Yet, as a human, you overrode the impulse to be closed and withdrawn to meet someone new and share something about yourself.”
That courage, along with creating safe groups where team/family members can collaborate while also encouraging one another’s gifts and skills, can create efficient farm families with meaningful work experiences. Relationships are key, as another one of the day’s speakers – Danielle Wildfong – said the success of relationships is a key factor on the farm’s bottom line.
First, Kerr reflected that in generations past, the farm family was often hierarchical with an authoritative elder making all the decisions. It wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful method but family dynamics have shifted as they learn that each member has a valuable role to play.
Referencing data from Google’s study called Project Aristotle, Kerr revealed that the best teams aren’t necessarily the ones with the best players. Rather, the best teams often have average players who are encouraged and trained to make them better, which increases the skills and aptitude of the entire team.
“A five percent increase in skills and knowledge in a group of average people will increase productivity and efficiency by 35 per cent,” said Kerr.
To build these successful teams, certain traits are required:
Dependability: There must be a sense of trust that each member is accountable and dependable, said Kerr. “So that if one member is out doing their job, you know they got it and nobody else has to worry about it.” This level of dependability is like a foundation to create more productive teams.
Structure and Clarity: Instead of being generalists, each member has a role or “lane” they stay in. “My job is to know my area really well and educate myself to get better in my lane,” said Kerr. Along with that, each person should be able to articulate what their job is, and what their goal is. “In this way, they understand how their contribution gets the whole team to its goal.”
Meaning: “If your work has no personal meaning, you are likely to suck at it and it is likely going to suck doing it,” said Kerr. “That’s why I asked you to start the day by sharing something you were passionate about because what we are passionate about is what provides meaning to our lives.” Kerr added that farmers don’t often struggle to find meaning. Taking care of animals and feeding others is full of meaning, and being able to work on a farm that has provided for four generations tends to create people who are passionate about what they do.
Psychological Safety: “That is not just an academic, nerdy term for a research paper. It is a way of describing what it feels like to be yourself around a group of people,” explained Kerr. It’s important that members of a farm family team do not have to hide who they are; they feel accepted by everyone in the group. That allows each person to make mistakes because then mistakes aren’t life-threatening. Instead, they become opportunities to learn. When a farm family has psychological safety, then everyone is free to express, explore and grow. “That sure as hell wasn’t my family,” admitted Kerr. “My dad set a tone about mistakes and expectations and I’m sure he would defend himself to this day, saying he was doing the right thing. But it made me less open to making mistakes and less about talking to him about the difficulties and challenges we were having. That was not psychological safety. It is what breaks collaboration.”
Collaboration: This is a term that describes a group culture where it is safe to make mistakes and people are accepted for who they are and what they know. “It’s where leaders are not authoritarian but are facilitators who are proud to cover for the team,” explained Kerr. “A team leader should be thinking ‘who is going to take my job’ not from a place of defensiveness, but from a place of grooming the talent in the family.”
To build psychological safety and collaboration within the farm family, Kerr offered these tips:
Active Listening: “Your eyes are your best listening tools. Not your ears,” he said. Eyes are directly connected to the brain and are able to process more information than computers can. To really listen to a person, you need to look at them and really see them. “The brain controls motion and if you are not active in a conversation, it will tell your feet and body to move away from that person,” explained Kerr. Seeing someone’s upper body or feet turned away from you is a big clue they aren’t listening.
Take Turns: Conversation isn’t a dialogue by one person. It’s allowing every person to have a chance to talk and share what is on their mind.
Empathy: Empathy is the greatest tool to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and really understand what they are feeling and experiencing, said Kerr.
Detach the Ego: Humans have complex brains ranging from the reptilians/survival part to complex thinking parts adapted to life in a social context. Most times, people work with their logical brain but when they get threatened or perceive a threat, that primitive brain becomes agitated, defensive, reactive, protective and uses aggression, avoidance or paralysis as coping strategies. Being aware of this and understanding how aggressive your ego can be goes a long way to defusing difficult situations and bringing your best self to the family team. ◊