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Ag's HR Coach
Monday, April 23, 2018 1:43PM CDT
By Lori Culler
DTN HR Columnist

"People follow leaders by choice. Without trust, at best you get compliance." -- Jesse Lyn Stoner, author of "Full Steam Ahead."

When we look at high-performing farm teams, there is one common factor -- trust. When trust is high, these power teams drive innovation, take care of the details, go the extra mile and foster relationships.

Most farm owners tell me they want employees who "care" about what they are doing and about doing it right. Trust is where that begins. It has been at the foundation of relationships from the beginning of time -- marriages depend on it, business partners either thrive or die because of it, and it carries the same weight with employer/employee relationship.

The more interaction required by team members to get the work done, the more critical it is to the health of the business. Given we are in the business of farming and most of what we do requires interaction with one another, trust is the key ingredient to success. Leaders who are self-aware of their own interactions, reactions and communication in situations and understand how their choices in each incident build or tear down trust are the most effective leaders.


When we trust others, we respond positively, we have an increased tolerance of their shortcomings, we speak up to share ideas, and we jump in to assist where needed. When the trust is down, we're cautious in our approach, our guard and defense is up, and we're naturally more protective of our ideas and thoughts.

Your reaction to situations sets the stage for how the employee handles all future situations; it creates a ripple effect. Let's say your employee comes to you with an issue: They accidentally sprayed a portion of your neighbor's field. If you lose your temper in the heat of the moment, you will begin chipping away at their trust. Mostly likely they will showcase undesirable behavior in the future, such as trying to fix it themselves or just carrying on like it never happened. If trust is down and interaction with the owner is avoided when possible, employees begin "guessing" on how to handle situation on their own, and it will become costly.

If you partner with your employee to fix the problem, they will have the sense of trust and will likely feel more comfortable coming to you with future issues. When employees feel the ownership has their best interest at heart and communication is transparent and positive, they are more likely to share ideas for improvements or call you to strategize about conditions they see in the field, such as if the field is too wet to plant.


1. Transparency and Honesty

Effective leaders are completely transparent with employees in all communication -- from challenges the team faces to successes like winning new ground. They've built a culture of honesty where employees trust that what is said is the truth, and dealings between employer and employee are simply fair.

2. Appreciate Your Employees

Employees are more valuable than an expense on your profit and loss statement. The return on investment on your "human capital" is accelerated if you capitalize on their strengths. Effective leaders embrace the human factor that each employee has emotions and comes prebuilt with a set of inherent talents and shortcomings. They build on their strengths, allowing them to grow and add value while also encouraging them to stretch in areas they struggle.

Simple applications to your farm include seeking ideas and feedback from your team on a constant basis. Ask them for their insight and opinions and, when possible, let them run with an idea they came up with. Even as a leader, be vulnerable to ask for feedback. Give your employees additional autonomy. Set the end goal and let them determine the direction of how to get it done. The result is a learning opportunity: They will learn by doing and naturally adjust the next time, or you might learn from a new approach.

3. Own Your Mistakes

In these high-trust organizations, leaders do not try to sugarcoat their own flaws. They own the areas they are not as strong. When the team fails, they take ownership as the leader for why it failed and will work toward developing a solution. A finger-pointing culture is one of the most toxic cultures you can have, and it comes from having a defensive team.

One of my highly respected farm clients talks about how they handle mistakes on their operation. When something goes awry, they talk about where "process" failed and how to fix it for the next time. They analyze whether the communication string was broken and whether there was a defined process. It eliminates the human emotion from the mistake at hand and brings it to a solutions-driven problem-solving process.

4. Fostering Team Strength

Leaders model what's acceptable communication and what healthy interaction among team members looks like. They set the stage for how discussions will be handled when it comes to different ideas on treating situations. They also foster an environment where flaws are not only tolerated but embraced.

Strategies to solidify team dynamics include giving positive feedback, celebrating wins together and giving credit when the team performs well together. Create subcommittees on the team, led by the team, to give the team autonomy and room to grow together. We have seen farms create employee-driven safety committees and continued-education committees to help develop new techniques and learn about new technology.

Trust is like the water on your field: You need it to grow strong, healthy crops. Without trust, employees' drive will wilt and not help your organization grow into the caring and efficient team that is needed for success. Take the time to nurture your relationships with your employees and build trust to grow a thriving team.


Editor's note: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires, a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email and find other labor management tips under Resources at


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