Talking With Employees

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

Whether dealing with family members or hired personnel, sooner or later there will be some challenges that will arise. It is unlikely that we find ourselves at a loss of words when dealing with family members. Communication patterns with those closest to us are not always positive, however, often falling into a predictable and ineffective exchange.

With hired personnel we may often try and put forth our best behavior. Out of concern for how we are perceived, we may err in saying too little when things go wrong. We may suffer for a long time before bringing issues up. This is especially so during what could be called a "courting period." Instead of saying things directly, we often try and hint.

At some point this "courting behavior" often gets pushed aside out of necessity. We may find it easier to try and sweep problems under the psychological rug until the mound of dirt is so large we can’t help but trip over it. Sometime after that transition is made, it may become all too easy to start telling the employee exactly what has to be done differently.

We can reduce stress, resolve challenges and increase productivity through effective dialogue. Such a conversation entails as much listening as talking. While effective two-way exchanges will happen naturally some of the time, for the most part they need to be carefully planned. There may be some pain—or at least moving us out of our comfort zones—involved in discussing challenging issues, but the rewards are immediate satisfaction as well as improved long term relationships. "This discussion makes me uncomfortable," volunteered one of my sons after one such conversation with both his mother and me, "but we need to do this more often."

One way to arrange for an effective conversation with farm personnel (for the rest of the article, family members will be included in this term), is to give an assignment ahead of time. One approach that has worked for me, has been to ask employees to bring answers to a few challenging questions given ahead of time. For instance, you can ask them to make a list of positive contributions they bring to the farm enterprise, as well as areas they feel they need to improve in. Human nature is such that we are more likely to want to put forth our own shortcomings than to have someone else point them out. This is especially so if we have reason to believe that someone will bring up some of our shortcomings.

During the meeting, when a worker points out a fault, you do not have to rub it in. Instead, you can ask, "So what specific steps do you plan to implement to correct this challenge?" The goals should be achievable. Another good question may be, "Is there anything I can do to help you with your goal?" The ownership of the problem or challenge thus remains where it belongs, with the employee.

Asking personnel about our own performance is a critical part of this equation. But asking, "Am I doing OK as your supervisor?" begs, for the most part, the answer, "Oh, you are doing fine." An effective question is: "What can I do differently, as your supervisor, so you can do a better job of helping me?" We must give the employee just as much time to prepare for this question as for the others. The employee is not asked to speak against you, but rather is enlisted to make the farm enterprise more effective.

As the worker tells us what we can do to improve, it is critical not to interrupt. Instead, we can ask questions and try and come to a better understanding of her perspective. Misconceptions can be cleared later. A third party facilitator can be effectively used in this approach. Either way, the potential exists for a healthy amount of self disclose to take place, and each person can stretch to consider his blind spots.

More information is available under the chapters on Performance Appraisal and Interpersonal Relations in Labor Management in Ag.

© 1999 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

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15 November 2004