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A farm business case study: Is your farm stuck because of low trust?

Without high levels of trust, your family farm will lose traction and stall out

Trust. It’s a short, simple word, but also complex. Ask three different people what trust means and you will get three or four answers. The definition, as well as the outcomes of low trust, are hard to pin down. But one thing is certain: without high levels of trust on your family farm, you will lose traction and stall out.

Consider the case of Joe, John, Phil, and Gary, who all farm together on a large farm in North Carolina. As fifth generation farmers they appear to be doing allright. Their farm is the envy of the county.

Look closer at how they operate as a team on a daily basis, and you will find that they don’t trust each other. That lack of trust results in several things: they don’t have a farm strategy; they operate from the seat of their pants; they lurch from one emergency to another; tempers flare and frustrations build.

Although some of the partners are in their sixties, they don’t have a transition plan. This has been an emotionally charged conversation so they don’t talk about it.  

The farm stopped growing not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t agree on simple things. Thus, each partner operates like the Lone Ranger and they seldom talk to each other. They undermine each other with employees. This leads to confusion among the employees; several left because of the chaos.

A retreat into silence

Over the years low level, daily conflict has taken a toll. The result is that today they can’t even agree on the most basic daily decisions. They have retreated into silence, ill will and sometimes violent conversations.

They asked me to help them sort it out and help them move forward. One on one I sat down and listened to their history and the history of the farm. This is what they told me.

  • There is always an undercurrent of tension between the partners when they are around each other.
  • They use politics on the farm and each partner tries to divide and conquer or create alliances with other partners, etc.
  • If they have an issue with someone they don’t talk about it; rather they talk to the other employees.
  • They have meetings and everyone is cordial. But after the meeting, they rehash the meeting one-on-one with each other.
  • Sometimes they gang up on a partner over an issue and then spring an ambush on the unsuspecting partner. This keeps everyone off balance.
  • They don’t have defined roles or responsibilities and thus they can’t be held accountable to results.
  • When they do have an agreement on something important, they demand that partners sign their name, even for trivial non-legal agreements.
  • When they come to an agreement and a solution to a problem, they qualify their agreement with vague language so as not to be pinned down if the solution doesn’t work.
  • They withhold information from each other which keeps others off balance. The person that withholds the information maintains their power position.
  • When they meet they beat around the bush, so to speak, and don’t directly address the hard issues.
  • They are highly competitive with each other and strive to “win” arguments at the expense of the other partners.
  • The rumor mill flourishes on the farm team from the leadership to the front line employee.
  • They meet about topics but don’t actually talk about the really important topics that are on their minds. Thus the meetings don’t actually accomplish much. Partners show up late or not at all.

Can this farm survive?

  • Is it any wonder why the farm is losing focus and traction? Are any of these symptoms on your farm? Can any farm move ahead with these issues? 
  • Trust is never static.  It never stays the same and is either increasing or decreasing.
  • Think of trust as a bucket with a spigot out in the hot sun. Trust is the water inside the bucket. When something is done that erodes trust the spigot is turned on and a little water runs out.
  • Big lapses in trust allow lots of water to escape and small lapses in trust allow just a little water to escape. When trust is really violated, the entire bucket is overturned and the trust spills out.
  • Even without anything that turns on the spigot, the hot sun slowly dries up the trust in the bucket.
  • Every day we inadvertently do small things that degrade trust. Over time, the result is what we see with Joe, John, Phil, and Gary.
  • The lack of trust manifests itself in conflict, poor communication, politics, ineffective meetings, lack of buy-in for fixing problems, secretive behavior, and lack of accountability.
  • Why is trust so important?  Best selling author Patrick Lencioni and others have researched what makes companies and teams blow away the competition, and why other companies fail.
  • They found that trust among team members is the foundation from which everything else is built.
  • But wait! You may be saying to yourself. We have trust. We live moral lives. We are family and we don’t lie, steal or cheat each other.

How a high trust farm behaves

Okay. Let’s talk about the signs of a trusting farm team. Do you see your farm team in the following points?

  • They talk about really hard issues knowing they will not always agree. They are OK not always agreeing.
  • When they have a problem they calmly visit directly with the person they have an issue with.
  • Failure is used as a learning experience.
  • They take risks and try new things (within reason) knowing the rest of the team will not harass them if the risk or new way of doing something doesn’t work.
  • They want to have defined roles because they want to be accountable to themselves, the team and the farm vision.
  • They ask each other for opinions even if they are certain they will not agree with the answer.
  • While there are disagreements, the rest of the employees are unaware and they keep these matters private.
  • Everyone supports the final decision whether they agree or not.
  • They show up on time.
  • What they say and what they do always align.

As you can see, trust comes in many forms. It is not a complete list but should give a glimpse of how a high trust farm behaves.

What happened next

What about our North Carolina farmers? After helping them understand their history of trust and conflict, we put a simple plan in place to get them started.

With Joe, Joh, Phil, and Gary we started out by creating a communication strategy that was simple and easy to keep on track. Once they started talking again about easy topics such as daily tasks, we started layering in tougher topics.

We peeled back the many layers of what caused the lack of trust in the first place. In their case, they each did small things over time that eroded trust, but they didn’t know the exact reasons. Often they were in agreement, but didn’t know it because communication had eroded.

Once we exposed these actions we then agreed on new standards of actions and behavior that they would abide by.

I’m glad to report they are making real progress as a partnership team. They have the tools and they are applying them. They are showing real progress and feel like the pressure has been lifted. The main danger they face now is stopping the new program now that the heat is off, and falling back into the same rut. Time with tell if they can make it stick, but they are off to a great start.

Trust is a simple, but important word. Trust never stays in one place. But leaders who systematically work at building trust have the best chance of growing a great team of partners and employees.

16 ways to build trust on your farm

The following are small actions you can take to build trust. While there are sometimes large ways to replenish trust, it is often the small and consistent acts that make the biggest difference.

  1. Be on time: Everyone is busy but 98% of the time people should show up on time. It shows commitment and reliability.
  2. Daily huddle: Have daily huddle meetings that keep everyone on the same page and allows your team members to voice their suggestions, concerns, and ways to improve the farm. Encourage reasonable debate.
  3. Don’t let problems fester: Don’t let conflict fester but pull in the affected team members or owners, and work it through as soon as possible.
  4. Ask opinions: Don’t just tell people, including your employees, what you think. Ask how they would approach the issue. If it sounds reasonable, let them try their idea first.
  5. Don’t play games: Don’t play games by withholding information or making power plays. Be straight forward and clearly communicate what you think. This is with employees as well as your partners.
  6. Weekly meetings: Have at least weekly meetings with your partners around important topics and then go back to work. We tend to trust people who we understand and having a concise meeting gets and keeps everyone on the same page.
  7. No politics: Resist the urge to politic and have meetings outside of the scheduled meeting.
  8. High personal standards: Hold yourself to a higher standard of behavior than anyone else.
  9. Keep it clean: Resist the urge to curse or yell at an employee or partner. It’s OK to be passionate about your work but if you feel that angry, call a meeting of partners and work it through. 
  10. Build support: On large, long term and important topics try to build a consensus, or near consensus, instead of ramming through a vote. Having all topics go to a vote are sure to alienate minority owners.
  11. Probe for flaws: If you bring up an idea, invite others to look for weaknesses in your idea. This shows you are confident in having people disagree with you and confident in your leadership.
  12. Know yourself: Know your strengths and weaknesses. Be aware of how you come across to people and your personality under stress. Nonverbal communication plays a large role in what the other person perceives. Our personalities also play a part in how we communicate and deal with conflict. There are many assessments and surveys that can help with this.
  13. Appreciation: Show appreciation to others around you. Say thank you more often than you think is necessary.
  14. Cut some slack: Everyone makes honest mistakes. Cut people slack when they infrequently make a mistake.
  15. Walk in their shoes: Seek to understand the other person's point of view even if you don’t believe you will agree with it.
  16. Admit it: When you mess up admit it and then make it right.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

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