Agricultural Labor Management
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LISTENING SKILLS AUDIO SEMINAR


Interacting With Employees

Gregorio Billikopf

For the fruit picking crew the day began like many others. There was the usual joking and laughing as laborers picked. It fell on me, as the foreman, to gather up the courage to tell the picker that his mother had died. But how? "Your mother has died, I'm so sorry," I finally told him. The worker began violently weeping and then embraced the tree he had been working on. Another crew member, unaware of the situation, mocked the grieving employee.
Rafael M. Montes, Foreman
Merced, California

Interpersonal relations at work (and away, too) serve a critical role in the development and maintenance of trust and positive feelings in a farm organization. Although the quality of interpersonal relationships alone is not enough to produce worker productivity, it can significantly contribute to it.

An effective supervisor needs to abstain from showing favoritism; make difficult, sometimes unpopular, decisions; show concern for subordinates without appearing to pry; and avoid misusing supervisorial power.

In fulfilling responsibilities, supervisors need to strike the right note in their interpersonal relations with workers. New supervisors, especially those who have moved up through the ranks, are often counseled to keep a healthy distance from workers. Supervisors must be approachable and friendly, yet fair and firm. A good sense of humor also helps.

In this chapter we look at basic concepts of human interaction as they affect workers in general and supervisors in particular. At times individual and cultural differences may complicate working relations. Supervisors may be called on to listen to employees and give advice. (Although much of the discussion here is in the context of farm supervision, farm family members are also called to listen to each other.)

Basic Human Interaction

The most basic unit of wholesome human interaction is the stroke—a verbal or physical way to acknowledge another person's value. A ritual is a mutual exchange of strokes: a sort of reciprocal validation of each person's worth promoting a sense of trust between people. The term "stroke" connotes intimate contact, such as what is received by an infant who is caressed, pinched, or patted.1

As adults, people generally do not go around patting, caressing or pinching other adults (except in the sports arena), but they may shake hands, wave, or say hello. At work most stroking takes place in the way of verbal communication and body language. Examples may include waving, smiling, a glance of understanding, shaking hands, saying hello, or even sending a card or flowers.

Physical strokes may include placing a hand on another person's shoulder, elbow, or back. While some persons do not mind, others feel these gestures, unlike the handshake, may be inappropriate. Some people may resent these physical strokes, not necessarily because they are sexual in nature, but because they often represent a show of superiority. Dexter, a supervisor, tended to frequently put his arm around Laurie's shoulder. Dexter was visibly uncomfortable when Laurie put her arm around his shoulder.

The need for personal validation is great. People may prefer negative attention to being totally ignored. Try to imagine how awkward it would be to meet a fellow supervisor and not greet him in any way, through either gesture or word. The opposite of a stroke is the "cold shoulder" treatment. A farmer was so uncomfortable when his otherwise excellent mechanics stopped talking to each other, that he was ready to fire them both.

Before job-related information is communicated, an exchange of strokes normally takes place. At the same organizational level either person can initiate or terminate a stroking exchange. In contrast, most workers understand it is the supervisor who often controls the length of exchange.

Even so, workers expect some sort of greeting from their supervisor. For example, a manager began to give orders to a farm worker but after his long explanation, the employee simply responded, "¡Buenos días (good morning)!" In essence, the worker was saying, "You forgot the ritual: I am not your horse, nor your tractor; I am a person."

Some strokes may be quite neutral or uncommitted, such as "I see." Others show more care or interest: "I heard your daughter is getting married, that's exciting!" Body language and tone of voice also play an important role in the intensity of stroke exchanges. Generally, when individuals know each other well, have not seen each other for a while, or when there has been a catastrophe or other special circumstances, a more forceful stroke is expected.

At times, the intensity of a stroke may make up for its brevity. For instance, a herd manager may realize special circumstances call for a longer stroke exchange, yet he may not be able to deliver at the moment. The herd manager may enthusiastically welcome the employee returning from a vacation, "Hey, I'm so glad you're back, you'll have to tell me everything about your trip at lunch! I've got to be running now to get ready for the veterinarian who is coming today." This stroking still validates the employee's existence while simultaneously acknowledging more is owed. A drastic change in ritual length or intensity, for no apparent reason, may affect a person's self-esteem or make them wonder what is wrong with the other.2

Cultural Barriers

In 1993, I had my first opportunity to visit Russia as a representative of the University of California. I was there to provide some technical assistance in the area of agricultural labor management. "Russians are a very polite people," I had been tutored before my arrival. One of my interpreters, once I was there, explained that a gentleman will pour the limonad (type of juice) for the ladies and show other courtesies.

Toward the end of my three week trip I was invited by my young Russian host and friend Nicolai Vasilevich and his lovely wife Yulya out to dinner. At the end of a wonderful meal Yulya asked if I would like a banana. I politely declined and thanked her, and explained I was most satisfied with the meal. But the whole while my mind was racing: "What do I do? Do I offer her a banana even though they are as close to her as they are to me? What is the polite thing to do?"

"Would you like a banana?" I asked Yulya.

"Yes," she smiled, but made no attempt to take any of the three bananas in the fruit basket. "What now?" I thought.

"Which one would you like?" I fumbled.

"That one," she pointed at one of the bananas. So all the while thinking about Russian politeness I picked the banana Yulya had pointed at and peeled it half way and handed it to her. Smiles in Yulya and Nicolai's faces told me I had done the right thing. After this experience I spent much time letting the world know that in Russia, the polite thing is to peel the bananas for the ladies. Sometime during my third trip I was politely disabused of my notion.

"Oh no, Grigorii Davidovich," a Russian graciously corrected me. "In Russia, when a man peels a banana for a lady it means he has a romantic interest in her." How embarrassed I felt. And here I had been proudly telling everyone about this tidbit of cultural understanding.

Certain lessons have to be learned the hard way. Some well meaning articles and presentations on cultural differences have a potential to do more harm than good and may not be as amusing. They present, like my bananas, too many generalizations or quite a distorted view.

Commonality of humankind

Differences between individuals within any given nation or culture are much greater than differences between groups. While at the San Francisco airport, a man caught my attention. He was conversing on the phone a distance from where I was sitting. There was something about him that made me wonder if he was Russian. Little pockets of words could be heard more distinctly at times. When I heard the word "chilaviec," or person, my senses where confirmed. I wanted to try out my three words of Russian with him, and the opportunity presented itself about twenty minutes later when he passed next to me.

"Dobrie utra" (good morning), I said. This stopped him on his tracks.

"How did you know?" he asked incredulously as he turned to face me. We struck a wonderful conversation about Russia. We had a number of common interests. Some time later, he pointed in the general direction of those boarding and indicated that there was another Russian that would be flying this leg.

When it was time for me to board, I reluctantly excused myself. As things turned out, after I sat down a quick glance at my neighbor's reading materials indicated that he must have been the other Russian in the plane.

"Dobrie utra" (good morning), I said once again. Without ever looking up to look at me from his book, he simply and unenthusiastically answered "Dobrie utra" (good morning). End of conversation.

Education, social standing, religion, personality, belief structure, past experience, affection shown in the home, and a myriad of other factors will affect human behavior and culture.

Sure there are differences in approach as to what is considered polite and appropriate behavior both on and off the job. In some cultures "yes" means, "I hear you" more than "I agree." Length of pleasantries and greetings before getting down to business; level of tolerance for being around someone speaking a foreign (not-understood) language; politeness measured in terms of gallantry or etiquette (e.g., a man standing up for a woman who approaches a table, yielding a seat on the bus to an older person, etc.); and manner of expected dress are all examples of possible cultural differences and traditions.

In México it is customary for the arriving person to greet the others. For instance, someone who walks into a group of persons eating would say provecho (enjoy your meal). In Chile, women often greet both women and men with a kiss on the cheek. In Russia women often walk arm in arm with their female friends. Paying attention to customs and cultural differences can give someone outside that culture a better chance of assimilation or acceptance. Ignoring these can get an unsuspecting person into trouble.

When I attended the University of California, Davis (not long after arriving to the U.S.), I was going up the stairways of my dormitory when a fellow student came down the stairs and said: "How're you doing?" By the time I turned around to tell him, he was out the door. I discovered that "How're you doing?" really means "Hello!" For the most part, the right response to the question, regardless of how one is doing or feeling, is something like, "Fine."

This phenomenon is quite international, of course. Latinos, for instance, are famous for their open-ended invitations. You will typically hear, "you'll have to come over for a swim [a ride, dinner, etc.] one of these days," and is equivalent to the American businessman's "we'll do lunch sometime." A true invitation is normally more specific. When nothing ever comes of these invitations, then the strength value of these strokes diminishes.

Language barriers can cause misunderstandings. Words may sound the same, yet have unlike meanings in different languages. Thus when a young woman, who was a non-native speaker, was prodded by her supervisor to say a few words in Spanish, she exclaimed, "Estoy muy embarazada." And turning to point to her supervisor, added, "¡Y la culpa es de él!" (She thought she was saying, "I am very embarrassed and it is all his fault!" Instead, she had exclaimed, "I am very pregnant, and it is all his fault!")

Punctuality can also have cultural connotations. Sometimes it is a matter of communication, however. During a visit to Brazil a multicultural diversity scholar developed a clever way of determining how punctual he had to be on a given engagement, by asking: "Hora brasileira? (Brazilian time?)" If the answer was yes, he knew the event would not be expected to start on time. This did not mean Brazilians did not know how to be prompt. When meeting time was more critical, they would specify either "Hora inglesa (British time)," meaning, on time, or "Hora alemã (German time)," calling for strict punctuality. In Japan time may take on an even stricter meaning: a group of international visitors was asked to attend a reception honoring a Japanese dignitary. At the precise appointed time, the Japanese hosts closed the doors, locking out all the non-punctual guests.3

Food preparation can be quite different in various cultures. One farmer could not understand why his workers did not attend a specially prepared end-of-season meal. The meal was being prepared by the farm owners. Instead, they found that when they provided the beef, pork or other meat and delegated the actual preparation to the workers, who could then season it their own way, such a celebration meal could be a great success. Similarly, a diary farmer found out that his Mexican employees were not too excited about getting ground beef as a perk. Instead, they would have preferred the cow's head, tongue, brains, as well as other cuts of meat that were not ground up.

At times it may appear that some workers, especially when there are social or ethnic differences, do not participate as easily. This is not because they do not have ideas to contribute, but rather, because these employees may need a little convincing that their ideas would be valued. Once this floodgate of ideas is opened, it will be difficult to stop them. In some sub-cultures, once a person has given an opinion, others are unlikely to contradict it. That is why some organizations ask their least senior employees to give an opinion first, as few will want to contradict the more seasoned employees. Setting up the discussion from the beginning as one where all ideas are welcome and valued, can be very fruitful. It is worth building an organizational culture where ideas are examined for their value, rather than for who offered them. Such a culture requires individuals to look for the good in ideas they do not espouse, as well as the potential pitfalls in those they advocate.

There are cultural and ideological differences and it is good to have an understanding about a culture's customs and ways. But the danger comes when we act on some of these generalizations, especially when they are based on faulty observation. Acting on generalizations about such matters as eye contact, personal space, touch, and interest in participation can have serious negative consequences.

Cross-cultural and status barriers

Often, observations on cultural differences are based on our own weakness and reflect our inability to connect with that culture. Cross-cultural observations can easily be tainted and contaminated by other factors. Perceived status differences can create barriers between cultures and even within organizations. Only through equality of respect between races and nations can we reach positive international relations in this global economy (as well as peace at home). Cultural and ethnic stereotypes do little to foster this type of equality.

Breaking through status barriers can take time and effort. As we interact with others of different cultures, there is no good substitute for receptiveness to interpersonal feedback, good observation skills, effective questions, and some horse sense. There is much to be gained by observing how people of the same culture interact with each other. Don't be afraid to ask questions as most people respond very positively to inquiries about their culture. Ask a variety of people so you can get a balanced view.

Making a genuine effort to find the positive historical, literary, and cultural contributions of a society; learning a few polite expressions in another person's language (see Sidebar 12-1); and showing appreciation for the food and music of another culture can have especially positive effects.

My contention, then, is not that there are no cultural differences. These differences between cultures and peoples are real and can add richness (and humor) to the fabric of life. My assertion is that people everywhere have much in common, such as a need for affiliation and love, participation, and contribution. When the exterior is peeled off, there are not so many differences after all.

Sidebar 12-1: Learning another language
Should I learn Spanish? Although it is not an easy task, surely there are benefits from learning another language. My oldest son related the following story he heard in Uruguay, "A skinny cat stood for hours waiting for the mouse to walk out from behind the hole, so he could nab him. He was having little success. A fat cat walked by, inquired about the nature of the difficulty, and volunteered to show the skinny cat the ropes. First thing, he had the skinny cat move out of the way where he could not be seen and did likewise himself. Next, he barked, "Woof, woof." The mouse, thinking a dog had scared the cat away, and it was safe, ventured out only to be nabbed and devoured by the fat cat. "You see," explained the fat cat, "it pays to be bilingual." Some of the benefits of being bilingual on the farm, include being able to better communicate with the farm workers. Certainly it is difficult to delegate, provide simple feedback, give instruction, impart correction, listen to worker concerns, or hold a performance appraisal when one speaks a different language from the employee.

What can I do to encourage my workers to learn English? When workers see you trying a little Spanish, willing to make a mistake, and notice that you do not take yourself so seriously, they are more likely to attempt a little English themselves. Being in an English-speaking country, workers have the advantage of hearing more English from day to day, than farmers will Spanish. Often, fear keeps employees from trying out their English. One farmer has been successful by paying a monthly bonus to those with whom he can communicate. Paying the tuition for workers who want to take a conversational or English as a second language (ESL) class may also be effective.

How difficult is it to learn another language? Learning another language, for most people, is extremely difficult and takes much commitment. My wife, for instance, took years of Spanish in High School and at the University, and yet would refuse to speak it with me (Ok, so I laughed once). Only after her fourth trip to South America did she venture out on her own. But when I am present, she reverts back to using me as an interpreter. Setting a goal of learning polite expressions and basic farm vocabulary is not so hard, and it can be a lot of fun.

Are there different types of Spanish? National and regional differences in vocabulary do exist, but they are minor, probably involving less than ten percent of the words used in Spanish. Nations and regions do incorporate some of the native tongues into their Spanish. Differences between Spanish-speaking nations are accentuated when slang is used, and minimized when a more formal Spanish is utilized.

Are there differences in accents? Differences in accents are much more pronounced than divergence in vocabulary. The more formal the Spanish, once again, the greater the similarities between countries.

What is Spanglish? Sometimes second generation speakers will make up their own vocabulary as they go. Such as adding an "a" or an "o" to an English word to make it Spanish sounding. For instance, instead of saying freno for the word brake, they may use breka. A related phenomena, is not using the correct gender with the appropriate word. Every noun has a gender in Spanish. Most words ending in "o" are masculine; ending in "a," feminine. While it is easy to know that it is la vaca (cow is female), and el toro (bull is masculine), it is more difficult to remember that it is el mapa, and el agua (map and water are masculine, even though they end in an "a"). The exceptions are few so they are worth learning.

What is the best way to learn another language? Assuming you want to speak more than you want to read that language, perhaps the best way is the way children learn: first by listening, then by repeating or speaking. Little by little children learn vocabulary and only much later do they learn reading and grammar. Learning another language needs to be fun, otherwise, it is hard to stay committed. We need to celebrate small achievements. The ideal is to travel to a Spanish-speaking country such as México, and to a situation where the people you are around do not speak anything but their own native tongue. Since this is not a practical option for most farmers, the next best approach is to check out language tapes at your local library.

I recommend starting with audio tape sets that have either one or two tapes only, as these are more likely to keep the vocabulary simple, and expressions short. Another feature to look for, are tapes that give the word once in English and twice in Spanish. The voice in the target language you are learning needs to be that of a native speaker. Just listen to the tape all the way through once or twice and only then begin to repeat after the native speaker. Listening to these tapes fifteen minutes a day, five or six times a week, is much more effective than listening for a long time once a week. Most of these tapes come with a little manual and include definitions and phonetic pronunciations. With the exception of emergencies, these manuals need to be avoided, except to quickly look up the spelling of a specific word whose pronunciation is difficult to determine. For instance, if it seems hard to tell if the native speaker is using a "d," "t," or "p" in a word. The very worst approach in learning a new language, then, is to use a phrase book where the phonetic pronunciation is given based on English. Your pronunciation in Spanish is likely to be as bad as mine is in English.

Should I take a class? If you learn better when working along with others, taking a class can help supplement your tapes. An immersion or conversational class is what you are looking for. There is a foreign language learning approach where the instructor uses only, or mostly, the target language being learned, and class participants repeat after the teacher. The instructor may point to an object, give the name in Spanish, and then ask you to repeat it first as a group and then as individuals. Be careful, however, before signing up, that the class is truly conversational and that the teacher speaks as a native. It is best to learn from a native speaker from the target country you are interested in.

What about tutors? Tutors need to be patient, enthusiastic, and willing to help you along at the pace you need. You may even want to pay one of your workers or their children to help tutor you (listen and correct you as you practice).

What about computers? There are many computerized language courses. Those that are interactive and come with audio capabilities, can be very helpful indeed. Make sure to select a computer program that is both fun and positive.

Can I make a homemade tape? If you have a publication that comes with good farm vocabulary, but no language tutorial tape, have a native speaker from the target country tape it for you. Or perhaps you have some farm words and expressions you want translated. These homemade tapes will help you maximize the time you spend with your tutor.

How about songs and singing? When words are sung, vowels are drawn out so their major pronunciation points are emphasized. Vowels are often the major expression of an accent. Trying to make out the lyrics of a song can be a fun way to improve your ear for the language, and improve your accent. There are specific songs that help people improve their accents. One such song in Spanish is "El mar estaba sereno, sereno estaba el mar," which is repeated over and over, in a catchy tune, changing all the vowels first to "a" as in "La mara astaba sarana, sarana astaba la mar," then changed to "e" and so on. The Spanish rolled "r" can also be a challenge. Try overly exaggerating the sound as if you were imitating a motorcycle engine and do not expect to be successful right away. After two weeks, however, you should see a definite improvement.

Any other recommendations? Listen to short wave broadcasts in Spanish, or local Spanish radio stations and television. Enjoy reading a little about the culture, geography, or region you are most interested in. Read children’s story books and reading primers for children. Learning Spanish, or another language, then, takes commitment. Getting started with farm vocabulary and polite expressions is a more reasonable goal and can be a lot of fun. After initial success, more difficult goals may be attained. At some point you will be ready to tackle those longer cassette tape series and enjoy reading.

When one adds language barriers to cultural differences, as we have said, additional challenges are posed.  Sometimes farm employers wonder if they should use an employee as an interpreter to train others or deal with sensitive issues such as performance appraisal and employee discipline. It is best to use an outside interpreter, unless the employee who is bilingual also happens to be the supervisor of the other employees.

The convenience and short-term savings of using a present employee as an interpreter are very much outweighed by the negative consequences of doing so. Employees are very sensitive about having their weaknesses discussed in front of others, such as co-workers, even if the co-worker is acting as an interpreter. There may be some competitive feelings among employees, also, that can be exacerbated by placing one of them, the interpreter, in a power position.

Below are suggestions (Sidebar 12-2) for working with interpreters when dealing one-on-one with another individual.  Some of these suggestions can be adapted for working with multiple participants.  The objective is for those holding the conversation to be able to forget they are working through an interpreter.

Sidebar 12-2: Working with interpreters (one-on-one communication)
(1) Individuals communicate directly with each other—not with the interpreter.  It is preferable for a participant to say, for instance, "Tell me what you think ...," rather than addressing the interpreter and saying, "Ask him to tell me what he thinks of ...." (The interpreter, in turn, needs to communicate as if she was the speaker.  So, instead of "he is asking what experience you have driving tractors," the effective interpreter will say:  "What is your experience driving tractors?"  Not, "it is his opinion that ...," but rather, "It is my opinion that ... ")

(2)  Speakers maintain eye contact with each other—not with the interpreter.  (The interpreter may want to suggest a seating arrangement that promotes eye contact between the stakeholders.  One effective arrangement is to have both participants relatively close, and facing each other, while the interpreter sits further away facing both.  The interpreter may at first have to remind the stakeholders to focus on each other.  If all else fails, the interpreter may try avoiding eye contact with the participants, except at times when she is asking for clarification, see #5 below.) 

(3) Express yourself through brief comments, pausing to allow for translation.  Otherwise, the interpreter may abridge or misinterpret your remarks.  The fewer the pauses allowing for translation, the greater the chances for interpretation errors.  (An effective interpreter will interrupt speakers as needed, and will often begin to translate longer sentences long before it is clear how the stakeholder will finish them.) 

(4) Avoid any possibly demeaning language that could be offensive to the interpreter, if not to the recipient.

(5) Encourage your interpreter to ask for any needed clarification.

(6) Ask your interpreter to translate questions back to you even when she feels they can be answered directly.  This approach not only reduces misunderstandings, but also promotes a more natural interaction..    

(7) When your interpreter is functioning correctly, you will soon forget she is present.  (Interpreters need to avoid taking part in the conversation unless invited to do so.)

Conversational Skills

Longer speaking exchanges may take place as required by job-related assignments or by social interaction (e.g., at a company picnic, during a long cattle drive). Poor conversational skills may hinder interpersonal as well as working relations.

What makes a person difficult to talk to? People are apt to be dull conversational partners when they are interested in only one topic, tend to be negative, are overly competitive (that is, anything you say they want to outdo), talk excessively about themselves, resort to monosyllabic answers, or talk too much. Certainly, any of the above make it difficult to carry on an interesting conversation.

This is not to say that some conversations are much more active than others, involving some interruption, exchange of stories, and experiences. "Talking and listening is a unique relationship in which speaker and listener are constantly switching roles, both jockeying for position, one's needs competing with the other's. If you doubt it, try telling someone about a problem you're having and see how long it takes before he interrupts to tell you about a problem of his own, to describe a similar experience of his own, or to offer advice--advice that may suit him more than it does you (and is more responsive to his own anxiety than to what you're trying to say)."4 While this competition for sharing ideas and feelings can be invigorating at times, all too often, as we shall see later, such an approach may cause both parties to feel discounted and dissatisfied.

Having an interest in what others have to say is a key to being a good conversationalist. Not only having an interest, but showing it, by attending to what the other individual is saying. In the words of Alfred Benjamin, "Genuine listening is hard work; there is little about it that is mechanical .... We hear with our ears, but we listen with our eyes and mind and heart and skin and guts as well.”5 In the process of attending or empathic listening, it is not enough to be able to repeat back what another has said, but it is just as important to show such an individual that she is important enough to give her our undivided attention. To "suspend our own needs"6 for a moment, while we truly absorb what the other person is telling us.

An effective conversationalist is also able to to take and pass along talking turns.7 Keeping comments short and checking to make sure the other person is still interested are two essential conversational skills. In a mutually productive discussion, individuals will normally share equally in speaking and listening.

Difficulty arises when people take more than their share of the talking time. This may happen when people feel others are not listening or when they suffer from lack of self-esteem.8 If they let someone else speak, they fear, they may not get another turn. Of course, there are also times when people have a need to be listened to, rather than for conversation.

Whatever the reason, regularly monopolizing a conversation is likely to alienate others. To combat this vicious cycle, it is more effective to fully listen for a few minutes than to half listen for a longer period.9

At the opposite extreme, it also reflects negatively on a person when she is given a turn to speak but pouts or refuses it. A person who has nothing to say or is not sure she can express her feelings at the moment, can instead say something like, "That is an interesting issue," and then indicate who the turn will go to next,10 "Inesa, what do you think of that?"

Social conversation may include discussion of a matter of interest to the individuals involved such as talking shop, sports, health, weather, family, recreational activities, food, travel, or discussion about a mutual acquaintance or experience.

Almost any topic can be of interest as long as people realize they do not have to stay on that subject forever. People do tire quickly of negativity, though, as well as of those who seem to carry around a dark cloud. Often people talk about a subject of interest to all participants. If not, there is an unspoken agreement, "we will talk about what interests you now, and later we will talk about what interests me."

Valuing Employees

In Chapter 9 we said supervisors and employees alike place a value on each other's inputs (or "contributions," such as a person's job, education, skills, or efforts). We also said the best way of preserving the value of our own inputs is by valuing the inputs of others.

A farm manager may be considered charismatic by most, hold a position of leadership, represent the establishment, and be highly skilled and knowledgeable in agriculture: those are her inputs. Even though she may not spend much time with the workers, what time she does spend is greatly valued by them. The value placed on a person's time is a good proxy for power, and this helps explain why quality time spent with employees by the supervisor, manager, or farmer is so meaningful to employees.

Careful selection, training, and appraisal of employees is one way for management to show it values its human resources. So is paying good wages, providing safe and sanitary working conditions, and communicating company policies. Equally critical are factors affecting interpersonal relations such as involving workers in decision making, effective communication styles, listening to employees, and avoiding one-way communication.

Increasing employees’ value

A personal visit to a worker's home by the farmer may be positively remembered for years to come, and result in an increased sense of loyalty toward the farmer. A farmer who makes an attempt to speak in a foreign worker's native tongue, will likewise be held in high esteem by the employee.

Significant contrasts in perceived inputs may lead a farm worker to avoid addressing the manager in a personal exchange, unless addressed first. Sometimes farm workers who can hardly afford to feed their families will bring a gift to the farm owner. This gift—their generous reciprocation for the job held or for a small attention on the part of the farm owner—may be homemade tamales, empanadas, a basket of eggs, or even the chicken that produced the eggs.

Depending on individual and cultural differences a number of rites of passage observances, such as birthdays, quinceañeras (15th birthday and coming of age celebration for young women), weddings, and funerals can be quite significant to employees. Farmers and supervisors may often be expected to show support in some way. Workers are likely to remember who sent flowers, a card, and especially, who attended the event. The absence of a supervisor, manager or farm owner may be just as conspicuous.

The death of an employee's family member may be particulary trying (see Sidebar 12-3). Sending flowers, plants, cards, and personal notes of condolence are good ways to show concern without being intrusive. Notes are more effective when they are more personal. "I'm sorry about the loss of your father," for instance, is better than "I'm sorry about your loss." It is preferable to do something concrete for someone than just offering to help. At the very initial stages of grieving, when it is hard to know what to say, sometimes a hug says it all.

Sidebar 12-3. Helping employees deal with grief11
A study was conducted in an attempt to find answers to difficult questions surrounding how we treat the death of an employee's family member. For the most part, employees did find support in the workplace. People attended funerals, provided food, sent flowers or cards, provided time off and a good listening ear, reduced work loads, and helped in many other ways. Support tended to wane, however, after the initial mourning period. Employees who found little support in the workplace were deeply hurt, even several years later. In a number of instances, the lack of support ended up with the employee quitting or being fired. Some had difficulty concentrating or needed more time off. "[Those I worked with] let me grieve for about 2 weeks and then I was expected to give 100% and act like nothing happened ... I resigned my position three months later."

Some felt they had been given a time limit to be over their grief, "Odd you haven't got over it yet: it's been six months." Or, "Go see a movie. Take your mind off yourself." Co-workers and supervisors need to be sensitive to the emotional needs of the survivor. A person who lost a child was told, "You can have another child." She wrote, "I could have ten more but there will only ever be one Jonni." I suspect those employees who were allowed to fully grieve were more likely to return to work sooner and concentrate better than those who lacked support.

Those who are grieving, when ready, may want to talk to you about the loved person rather than be sheltered from the pain. One person wrote, "Virtually nobody initiates conversation about our daughter ... I think they just don't want us to hurt, but by doing that, we're being robbed of the only thing we have tangible, and that's to talk about memories of her." Finally, employees going through divorce12 or other personal challenges also need support and understanding at work.

Another way to value employees (besides treating them as human beings with needs, desires, aspirations, grief, and successes) is to find ways of putting aside traditional sets of inputs or contributions. You may want to take advantage of the opportunity to participate next time workers invite you to join them in a soccer game, or challenge you to a race on foot or horseback, or to a game of chess. In these instances traditional inputs related to societal position may lose importance.

Reducing another’s value

Conflict may arise when other people's inputs or assets are not valued. One supervisor, a college graduate, may look at his formal education as an input. A second supervisor may view his seniority, or having worked up through the company, as his. Neither may value the other's assets. Both may fight for resources on the basis of their perceived contributions. Instead, both would be better off by acknowledging each other's strengths.

Reduction in the value of an input may also come from a misunderstanding of cultural values. A Mexican cowboy in a cattle ranch cooked up a special native meal and took it to the American ranch foreman. Unfortunately, the foreman did not accept the gift. The worker was acknowledging the value of the ranch foreman's organizational position and, perhaps, his membership in the predominant racial group. The feelings of the Mexican cowboy were hurt. Now he has little loyalty for the foreman and is less concerned with being helpful.

Asking for Advice

When asking for help, employees do not always ask the most knowledgeable person. They also consider factors such as who offers help cheerfully and without condescension. Asking for help includes costs of time and possible disclosure of sensitive personal matters.

There is an additional cost when competitive behaviors are involved. Competitive conduct seeks to establish predominance in a given field and may see asking for help as a sign of weakness, or as a way of recognizing the other person's superiority.

Those who are asked for help also weigh the advantages and disadvantages of either fully helping, offering a brief suggestion or two, or withholding help. Rewards an expert may gain from helping include increased self-esteem and a good feeling from being of service. Costs may include time, and encouraging overly dependent behavior. Experts with poor self-esteem may fear they may reduce the knowledge gap.

Those who ask for help often rotate requests among several people. The profit margin experienced by experts normally decreases with each subsequent helping episode—unless these are sufficiently well spaced13 or there is a mentor relationship.

Employee Needs

A few workers seldom ask for help, unwilling to admit they do not know how to approach a work challenge. Even though it is not their intention to do so, these employees sometimes ruin equipment, animals, or crops through their attempts at self-sufficiency. Other workers often exasperate their supervisors by their apparent lack of confidence. They need to be constantly reassured that what they are doing is right.

Often supervisors feel uncomfortable about even listening to an employee's personal difficulties. In one agricultural packing company, a first-line supervisor adamantly felt workers should keep their home related problems at home, and work related challenges at work. As ideal as it sounds, this goal may be difficult to attain. Have you ever been so devastated by a personal challenge or by a tragedy that left you numb? One where you could not concentrate on work?

There are plenty of personal difficulties, as well as events in the community and elsewhere that may act as distracters. These may trouble workers and affect their capacity to perform on a given day. Some workers may not have anyone to turn to outside of work. Many people lack social networks of family and friends with whom to share difficulties. Trends show the number of divorced and single-parent families are increasing.

Accepting an occasional request for a sympathetic, listening ear, or for advice, is simply part of a supervisor's job. A supervisor who can help workers cope with their difficulties may deflect industrial accidents or serious errors. The sooner workers cope with their problems, the sooner they can concentrate on their jobs. This is not a suggestion to set up a counseling practice, nor should supervisors routinely snoop into the personal lives of workers.

Some difficulties may be serious. In one operation an employee returned to work distraught after lunch. The worker's wife had just announced her intention to leave the home. He tried to approach his supervisor to discuss the problem but was turned down. A few moments later he committed suicide at the worksite. In another operation a worker shared his intention to commit suicide but happily encountered a sensitive listener. Instead of committing suicide, this employee was able to complete a productive career. Listening was a small price to pay.

Workers may also turn to their supervisor for help in dealing with an alcohol or chemical dependency. Sudden performance deterioration or unusual behavior may also demand attention. At other times, performance may worsen over a long period of time. A supervisor may inquire about the drop in performance but it is up to the employee to choose to talk about personal problems. If performance does not improve, supervisors may need to resort to the disciplinary process (Chapter 14.)

Supervisors vary in their approaches to answering requests for advice or help. Some prefer to have employees take as much responsibility as possible for finding solutions and feel uncomfortable being directive. Unfortunately, most people have little trouble telling others what they should do, even when not asked. On the way home from a father-daughter date, I asked one of my daughters if I could give her some free advice. "I certainly don't plan to pay for it," she smiled.14

Some employees ask for help before carefully thinking through the problem on their own. Giving employees advice—work-related or personal—may also be looked at as the other side of the delegation coin. If supervisors are not careful, employees will delegate their problems to them (see Sidebar 12-4).

To avoid such a situation, one hog operation supervisor has found it helpful to ask overly dependent employees to suggest alternative solutions to a difficulty. The workers often discover the best solution in the process. A similar approach requires both supervisor and employee to make a list of alternative solutions. At the onset, none of these ideas are either defended or criticized. Then, the supervisor asks the worker to evaluate each alternative by listing its pros and cons. The supervisor may help in this process, but at the end the worker is left to weigh the various solutions himself.

Sidebar 12-4: Your monkeys

One clever analogy compares problems to monkeys. Everyone carries a few on their back. One day four employees came to see the farm manager who agreed to look into each of their difficulties. The employees left each of their monkeys in the manager's care. A manager who in one day accumulated four monkeys must, over time, have a jungle's worth of them. The manager had less time for her family and was not really helping the workers either. Employees were irritated when problems did not get resolved as quickly as they wished. One weekend while at work taking care of their monkeys, she saw four very familiar faces playing soccer. After some serious thinking she devised ground rules for employees: "At no time will your problem become my problem," she told them. While she agreed to discuss the challenges that employees faced, she was less quick to take the monkeys off their backs. Since then, she learned the important difference between listening to employees and agreeing to take their monkeys.15

Sharpening Listening Skills (see updated link, empathic listening)

When helping employees, often the key is not so much in trying to solve their problems but in being a good listener. By being truly listened to, employees are often empowered to solve many challenges on their own. On occasion, supervisors may need to suggest the employee seek professional help as in the case of alcohol or chemical dependency, prolonged depression, or serious psychological dysfunction. A supervisor who is asked for help, either on a personal or work-related problem, can provide it by (1) giving advice as an "expert," or (2) being a good listener. Regardless of the approach taken, a critical first step is to clearly understand the nature of the difficulty. Often, the presenting problem is not the issue that is really vexing the employee.

In trying to understand the employee you may use the reflective approach. In essence, it requires restating what the other is saying to make sure you have properly grasped the meaning. For instance, "If I understand you correctly, you find it difficult to work with Guillermo?" The reflective approach can be overdone, though. Workers will become impatient or irritated if you mirror everything they say. Mirroring is especially crucial in highly emotional situations or where possible misunderstandings exist.

Perhaps you have asked someone you are trying to help, why something is happening. Often, he will tell you he does not know. A related question tends to yield better results, "Have you tried to imagine what may have led to such and such happening?" The answer may be more instructive, and increase the listener's understanding.

Other approaches to help workers express themselves or clarify their feelings include allowing for longer periods of silence or expressing confusion, "I'm not sure I understand." In the process of listening for understanding, asking for clarification, and examining possible solutions, a supervisor's understanding of the worker's difficulty evolves.

Expert approach

The expert or "medical" approach is directive. The supervisor listens to problems presented by the employee, makes a diagnosis, then recommends the best solution. A skillful advice giver will try to diagnose the situation through a series of questions. Sometimes more involved diagnostic procedures are needed.

A rough rule of thumb is that technical problems may be best solved through the expert approach. Also, the expert approach can be quite effective when (1) there are great differences in knowledge, (2) there is one right answer, or (3) there is an emergency (e.g., a rancher calls the veterinarian to handle a colt with colic).

Often the person asking for help knows little about the subject or even what questions to ask. A worker may ask his supervisor what fertilizer to use, how to properly mix it, and how to calibrate the nozzles for spraying. The supervisor might answer these questions and provide other useful advice. An important part of the process is ascertaining how much the person knows before starting to give advice. It often happens that people asking for help may have already given the matter much thought.

Supervisors may hold very definite opinions. At times they may be sure of what approach they would take while realizing others may benefit from a different approach. Counselors should not suggest their clients violate their own principles or beliefs. Nor should advisors be expected to be amoral. Sometimes, as a helper, supervisors may find alternative solutions reprehensible or unethical. Supervisors will want to let employees know when this is the case. The employee can then choose to seek help from someone else if he so desires. Often, however, people will seek a supevisor's opinions because they respect her values.

Supervisors who are asked for advice in the workplace have the advantage of knowing more about the situation--compared to outsiders. This can also be an obstacle. Someone who is too close to the situation may already be part of the problem, have preconceived ideas, or may have trouble listening very carefully.

The expert method does not always work well. It can be frustrating to the employee who has "her problems solved" in a manner incompatible with her philosophy or style. Diagnostic skills vary, and experts may also fail to properly detect "where it hurts." As we have alluded to earlier, the expert approach may contribute to overdependence on the advice giver. Increasingly, people want multiple expert opinions and do not want to rely on a single opinion. Supervisors who are asked for advice should not be so invested in their own recommendations that they take offense when these are not followed. Those who seek advice would do well to explain that they are seeking guidance from several people, and will make a decision after weighing the different opinions.

Often, people appear to be asking for help but only want someone to listen. They may even tell the person who tries to help to be quiet and listen. Likewise, employees may be more interested in impressing you with the impossibility of solving the problem than in finding a solution. Such a person may respond with a "Yes, but," to every suggestion you make, as if to say, "I dare you to find a solution to this problem."16 If you sense this trap it is a good indicator that you may be trying to answer as an expert when a listener is needed instead.

Listener approach

The listener approach is one where the supervisor is more focused on attending to the needs and feelings of the employee, than in trying to solve a problem. Most often, it is about celebrating one person's success or sharing in another's sadness. If the situation does involve a challenge that needs solving, the supervisor realizes that the challenge is owned by the employee. The rule of thumb here is that relationship issues, as well as challenges that have existed for a long time, may require a listening approach. The listening or counseling approach can be frustrating to the employee who wants an expert. In the listener approach, the assumption is that the solution lies within the person with the problem--this may not be the case.

We spoke earlier about empathic listening, which requires that we suspend our own needs and preocupations for a moment, while we truly absorb what the other person is telling us. Empathic skills are critical to the listener. There are no shortcuts here. People can tell when they have been put off.

There are those who assure us that they can listen and do something else at the same time, such as work on the computer, read a newspaper, train a horse, or attend to other business at the same time. While it is true that some individuals are better able to do more than one thing at a time, nevertheless, the message that is given to the speaker is discomforting: "You are not important enough to me at this moment, to attend exclusively to your needs."

There is yet another way we discount the needs of others. And that is by sharing our own story of loss, disappointment, or of success, before the individual has had the opportunity to be heard in his story. We may feel that sharing our own story is proof that we are listening, but instead, the other person feels we have stolen the show.17 This is not to say that there is no room to share our story with others, but rather, to make sure that they have truly finished sharing theirs first. You encourage them by empathic listening, by showing the person with body language, or by a "hmm," "go on," or "tell me more," that you are still listening and interested.

When a person is not listening we can often see it in his body language: "The automatic smile, the hit-and-run question, the restless look in their eyes when we start to talk."18 Some advice givers may come across as experts even though they have used no direct statements. For example, they may use questions such as, "Don't you think ...?" or, "Have you tried ...?" Advice givers will want to avoid being direct while trying to come across as an open minded listener.

I observed a speaker, a therapist by training, who freely used the line, "I can see you are hurting" with those who were asking questions at a conference. I was the conference interpreter, and was in a position to observe the audience. One older man told his sad story, and the speaker used his line at the right moment, it seems. The participant leaned back and stopped talking. I could see it in his eyes and body posture, that he had felt empathy from the speaker. The man had been touched and had felt understood. I was impressed. It seemed to me, however, that with each subsequent use of the "I can see you are hurting" phrase, it took upon itself an increasing artificial air. Fewer people were convinced of its sincerity and the line soon meant, "be quiet, I want to move on." If we do not have time to listen at the moment, it is better to say so.

Often people begin with the intention of listening, but get derailed along the way, but not necessarily because they do not have time. There is a natural but unfortunate tendency to switch from a listening to a directive approach in the course of a counseling session. The listener may want closure, or forget that individuals tend to have their own problem-solving styles. People often say things like, "If I were in your position, I would have ...." Maybe so. Perhaps we would have solved the problem had we been in her place. Different personality types may approach specific challenges in predictable sort of ways, with some predictable results. For instance, some people would not dream of complaining to a co-worker that something was bothering them, but instead would let it fester inside. Others might have trouble keeping their opinions to themselves. At times people may assume they are different from another, yet in the same situation would feel just as conflicted about how to proceed.

Your effectiveness as a listener is often lost if you solve the problem before the person you are attempting to help does. The good listener and helper has enough confidence in himself to be able to listen to others without fear.

In empathic listening we need to give the person a chance to tell us how she really feels. Avoid the desire to come to the rescue and "make it all better" with such platitudes as "next time you will do great," "you need to worry less," "you can get another one," or "don´t be silly, you have nothing to worry about." Telling an employee that with time a certain disappointment will hurt less, is not very comforting at the moment. An important part of listening is allowing people to get some weight of their chest, or to make their burden a shared one, even if it is only for a moment. There is great therapeutic value in being able to think aloud and share a problem or a challenge with someone else who will truly listen to us. The process of trying to explain our problem to another person helps us to better understand ourselves and our challenge.

Here is a striking example of an advanced empathic response from Benjamin Alfred. "When Charles, a black youth from Harlem, told you he hated Jews and would gladly strangle them all if he could, there was much you wanted to say. It was all on the tip of your tongue when you recalled that you were here to help him if you could. How could he realize you wanted to help him if you wouldn’t even listen to him? If this was how he felt, you decided, it was better to listen and try to understand what it meant for him. And so you did not scold; you did not criticize; you did not tell him not to talk or feel that way. You did not moralize about Judeo-Christian values. Instead, you opened his perceptual field even wider by saying, ‘Right now you hate the Jews desperately.’ He poured out deep feelings of rejection, bitterness, and hopelessness. Gradually, you began to see, to understand. You did not agree; you did not condone; but you began to feel what he had gone through and was still going through. You saw how full of hate and resentment he was against the Jews he knew and how totally unaware he was that you were Jewish.".19

Listening is not the same as being quiet. The right question may truly help the employee or colleague know that we are listening. It may well help them better explain themselves. But even good questions can be ineffective at the wrong time. We should avoid interrupting with a question unless we need the person to explain or clarify a point they are trying to make.

After the initial period of listening, there may be a need to help the employee move forward from the point she is at. Diagnostic questions may well be appropriate at this time. The focus of these questions is to understand the challenge the worker is facing. The supervisor avoids giving direct suggestions on how to solve a problem. Questions may include: "What approaches have you tried?" "What alternative are you leaning toward?" "What do you plan to do about it?" "How would you feel if you followed his advice?" "What are you trying to accomplish?" "What will happen if you take a month before acting?" "Have you ever told him you felt this way?" "What are you planning to do if that does not work?"

After listening for a while, if you are looking for a positive closure, an effective question to ask the employee is "So, what do you plan to do now?" This question allows the employee to have the last word, summarize what he is feeling, and take back ownership of the challenge. This is especially important if we have fallen into the easy trap of giving unwanted advice and thus stolen the problem from the employee.

If, as a listener, you have more time and feel comfortable with the helping process, you may take the process a bit further, yet. This can be done by brainstorming with the person with the difficulty, in an attempt to come up with multiple and creative solutions. Each solution's positive and negative contributions are only examined after brainstorming. It is best if the person who owns the challenge offers the most brainstorming ideas. Perhaps a solution that is a combination of strategies will be chosen. Although it takes more tact and skill, an excellent helper encourages people to go past simply speaking about their difficulties, to actually making specific plans to reduce or eliminate them.

Those we are attempting to help may have developed blind spots. Blind spots prevent us from seeing our own faults. For instance, we do not always see how our actions may be contributing to our difficulties. As long as blind spots exist, we tend to blame everyone but ourselves for our predicaments. Not anyone can challenge these blind spots. A helper must earn the right to do so,20 by showing empathy and true concern. Nor can the challenge appear judgmental.

A final point to make here is the need for strict confidentiality. There may be a few exceptions where information may need to be shared with other individuals on a need-to-know basis. Specifics often need not be mentioned. Permission may be solicited from the affected worker if appropriate. A supervisor may also want to seek advice from a qualified professional on how to handle sensitive or troublesome topics.

Part of being a good listener may require consciously fighting to keep an open mind and avoid preconceived conclusions. A supervisor may want to continually assess her advice-giving style in a given situation. For instance, she may ask herself: Am I ...

· Allowing the person with the problem to do most of the talking?

· Avoiding premature conclusions based on what the employee is telling me or on information I have obtained from other sources?

· Assisting the employee in solving his own problem or am I being overly directive?

· Permitting the employee to retain ownership of the problem?

Sidebar 12-5: Let the phone ring!
The next time a worker comes in to talk to you, give him your full attention if you can, or re-schedule a meeting for a time you can. Show the employee you are concerned about his time, too. Turn off your cellular phone if you are in the field, and if you are in the office, ask your secretary to take messages rather than allow interruptions. If the telephone rings, well, let it ring! If you are expecting an important call, you may want to let the worker know right away: "I can't talk very long right now, I'm expecting a call." This can be followed by an offer to reschedule the visit for a more appropriate time. If the employee decides to speak to you now, he knows the importance of being brief and the risk of interruption. Of course, there are exceptions, but letting the phone ring often makes good sense. If you are always too busy for employees, something else may be wrong.

Summary

Interpersonal associations, on and off the job, have an important place in labor management. In this chapter we have tried to understand interpersonal relationships on the job. We also looked at personal and cultural differences affecting interpersonal relations.

Strokes tend to validate a person's sense of worth. Most employees expect some stroking exchange, or ritual, before getting down to business. Being able to hold a conversation, a key work and interpersonal skill, is based on the participants’ ability to give and take.

Everyone brings a set of "inputs" into the job. Little trouble may occur as long as there is agreement about the value of these inputs. Individuals who want to preserve the benefits of their inputs, whether personal or organizational, need to value the inputs held by others.

Among the many activities supervisors are involved in, employee counseling is one of the most difficult. It is often too natural and easy to use an expert or directive mode, even when an active listening approach would be more effective. A good listener helps by letting people get problems off their chest, rather than by solving specific challenges for others.

Chapter 12 References

1. Berne, Eric. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, Grove Press, Inc.: New York, 1964. Also see Berne for a discussion on stroke intensity, cultural differences, and dysfunctional communication patterns.
2. Berne, Eric. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, Grove Press, Inc.: New York, 1964.
3. Cortés, C. Cultural Shock: Managing a Diversified Workforce. Agricultural Personnel Management 11th Annual Forum. Modesto, California. Mar. 7, 1991.
4. Nichols, Michael P. The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. The Guilford Press: New York. 1995, p. 14.
5. Benjamin, Alfred. The Helping Interview (2nd Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1974, p. 44.
6. Nichols, Michael P. The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. The Guilford Press: New York. 1995, p. 61
7. Elgin, S. More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1983.
8. Dobson, M. How to Solve Communication Problems. Fred Pryor Seminar. Stockton, California. July 17, 1991.
9. Dobson, M. How to Solve Communication Problems. Fred Pryor Seminar. Stockton, California. July 17, 1991.
10. Elgin, S. More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1983.
11. Billikopf, Gregory Encina. "Coping With Grief in the Workplace." Modesto Bee, January 12, 1994, pp. G1, G3 (Living). Also special thanks to La Nación and to Rosa Ibarra, Employment Development Department, who interviewed agricultural workers in Spanish. Ag and non-Ag responses are included.
12. Pelzer, M. R. "Workplace Sensitivity Part II: Helping Colleagues Cope With Divorce," People in Ag: Managing Farm Personnel, May-June 1994.
13. Brown, R. Social Psychology: The Second Edition. New York: The Free Press. 1986.
14. Billikopf, Cristina, personal conversation with. 13 March 1999.
15. Based on Oncken Jr., W., & Wass, D. Management Time: Who's Got the Monkey? Harvard Business Review. Nov.-Dec.1974, pp. 75-80.
16. Hendricks, J. J. Organizational Development and Group Dynamics course. California State University, Stanislaus. Spring 1986, and Berne, E. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1964.
17. Nichols, Michael P. The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. The Guilford Press: New York. 1995.
18. Nichols, Michael P. The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. The Guilford Press: New York. 1995, p. 111.
19. Benjamin, Alfred. The Helping Interview (2nd Edition). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1974, p. 21.
20. Egan, Gerard. The Skilled Helper: A Systematic Approach to Effective Helping (3rd Edition). Brooks/Cole Publishing Company: Monterey, California. 1986.

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Labor Management in Ag
Table of Contents

11 August 2006