Karen Kerns of Kerns and Associates co-wrote this article with Cheryl Day.
Communication is more than exchanging information. It is the ability to understand the emotion and intentions behind the information. Any team member, no matter their job title, needs to communicate effectively.
Often, effective communication, especially in agriculture, is driven by a need to instill technical competency. Communication in a production-oriented environment tends to prefer educating, informing and correcting at the expense of creating a relationship, building loyalty and instilling ownership.
The behaviors and experiences that characterize day-to-day operations drive our culture — how we practice and preference work relationships, deliver services and products, and treat our animals.
When cultures tend to focus on technical competence, task accomplishment and job descriptions, communication becomes a transaction, reduced to a value proposition: You pay for “x,” and I deliver “x.” Communication in production environments often is akin to a manager or trainer pouring information into a funnel over an employee’s head. When you tell people that knowledge dumping is communication, they are confused.
“Transactional relationships are functional for retail organizations, but they are too limiting in highly reactionary and often unpredictable production environments, where real-time response to live animals and live people is necessary,” says Karen Kerns, CEO of Kerns and Associates. “Communication cultures promoting problem-solving, critical thinking, planning, commitment and innovating are the game-changer when it comes to excellence, performance and employer-employee satisfaction.”
Awareness, education, conversation, engagement, connection and motivation are all components of successful communication — these are the tools of relationship.
Production workers, especially managers and owners, struggle with communication because the exclusive emphasis of their jobs seems to rely on delivery in a very physical environment.
Effective, efficient delivery is the outcome of well-established team building and investment in building the confidence and competence of individuals. It is rarely gross errors of technical competence that causes teams to fail to perform. Instead, it is the problematic behaviors of the tank operations — negligence, failure to comply, disruption, harassment, bullying, apathy, anger, frustration and lack of stewardship.
In some operations, especially those quickly expanding, owners sometimes find themselves addressing situations characterized by immoral and illegal activities that completely disrupt business and compromise entire teams.
Kerns and Associates treats risk management holistically, focusing on any aspects of risk compromising a business. Their own business culture emphasizes the “business” of relationship — understanding and tending to the pain, character, history and passion of clients, and strategically partnering to help them solve problems and build industry relationships and internal expertise.
Study, plan and implement
A relationship-based culture is key for businesses wanting to build capacity. Stewarding relationships impacts recruiting, developing and retaining the right employees.
How is that done? This information is rarely taught in school, nor do producers have access to methods for practice in physically intensive environments, where immediate action is necessary. Building a great business culture requires time spent studying, planning and implementing team- and ownership-based behaviors.
It’s important first to assess the existing culture. What values, vision and assumptions underlie practices and communication ruptures? And what has the operation done exceptionally well that it can build upon? Kerns advises examining current technical skills — “how” and “why” they do things — along with behavioral capacity. Consider the following questions:
■ How do people communicate with each other, in teams, with owners?
■ How do operations prioritize?
■ What practices ensure accountability?
■ How is information and performance data shared? Is there operational and relational transparency?
■ How, when and where does conflict happen, and how is repair practiced?
■ What assumptions about work, team, ownership, incentive and performance are communicated directly or indirectly?
■ How flexible is the operation and how dynamically does it respond to opportunity?
■ What efforts exist to promote strategic communication, planning and implementation. And how much time is spent working “in” the business as opposed to “on” the business?
■ What emphasis is given to execution over innovation, problem-solving and critical thinking? Does that preclude progress?
Values of company critical
Values are the lifeblood of the company. It is essential to be honest about what values have been articulated and which ones have not been articulated. “We often discover that company mission and values statements have little traction or credibility when it comes to practice,” Kerns says. “If we wrote mission statements based on observing actually day-to-day business practices and employee perceptions, our operations would likely be shocked.”
She provides this example: “Our industry offers so many conferences and events that owners feel pressured to attend. They fear of missing opportunities to build alliances and benchmark their operations. So it’s not uncommon to see owners and their adult children, who are the primary leaders in the operation, absent for two to three weeks a month. This absence flies in the face of lectures about employee attendance and operational consistency. So, when those adult children/owners/managers attempt to lead, they have little credibility because they are not present to build a relationship and demonstrate expertise. The patriarch or owner gets off easier because they have earned their stripes.”
Once a comprehensive study of the business, including its culture, is complete, the gaps are identified. This process includes looking at communication structure and how people interact. Basically, it comes down to what causes rupture and what prevents repair, Kerns says.
It is much easier to formulate a plan and implement it if all components have been examined. What expertise contributes to the business’s success? What are the ruptures or gaps? And what existing practices, protocols, strategies and models will work to move the company forward?
“Most people focus on how we sustain the operation. We are talking about magnifying capacity not just growing people but magnifying them,” Kerns says.
Finally, once operations agree upon an implementation strategy, they must have the capacity, confidence and discipline to practice and deliver what they’ve agreed will help them function more effectively.
“Our new rule is now ‘no shepherd, no sheep.’ Because what we are finding is that companies want to rely on external consultants to deliver results rather than creating the necessary internal ‘shepherds’ or stewards who will be accountable for managing growth, execution and change,” Kerns says. “So we tend to invest our efforts in those who chose to build internal expertise. When Kerns, as consultants, can rely on and build client expertise, we can all move faster together. We can provide great value, and we successfully help build operational capacity. The smarter an operation is, the smarter we are with them.”
The 3 Rs
Investing in people is more than building technical competence. It is also fostering their behavioral capacity. Education does not equal communication. Kerns says that too often employers attempt to solve behavior and production problems by throwing more training, money or technical solutions at them. This does not create relationships, or repair communication confusion or ruptures. “Technical solutions are useless if people don’t embrace and practice them consistently,” Kerns says. “Our industry tends to focus on job descriptions as a checklist of tasks and compliance requirements. We would be much more effective to create role profiles that identify employee goals for providing value in teams and for the operation. We encourage producers to incorporate education, team and contribution goals in these role profiles. The focus is more on creating value for the operation rather than managing a list of tasks.”
Creating a sense of value in their relationship to work and the team reinforces self-esteem and creates a sense of loyalty. Loyal, contributing employees tend to work through operational ruptures and shifts more consistently than checklist employees.
Kerns notes that relationships go through three phases: relationship, rupture and repair. Research indicates that humans are only in healthy or good relationships about 30% of the time. This is normal. Beyond that, daily life and being human creates ruptures in the relationship, she says.
Given the way humans are radically different, raised in various environments and influenced by unpredictable life experience, it is unrealistic to expect more than 30% of relationships will be perfect. It is important to understand the three R’s in relationship dynamics — relationship, rupture and repair.
“If we accept that 30% is average and we lower our expectations anticipating relationships to rupture, then it is much easier to move past the pain and focus on the repair,” Kerns says. “So, if we accept that conflicts are going to take place, then it is easier to prepare for, embrace and normalize them. That way, people don’t internalize and become demoralized when things don’t work.”
“Seventy percent of communication is preparation. Preparing yourself and the other person engaged in handling whatever controversial issue is in front of you,” Kerns says. “We should be spending a lot of time making sure we have created security in our working environment — emotional and physical — before we attempt to get our point across when there is a problem.”
She further explains how important security is in a physical production environment. “We are dealing with live animals and live people,” Kerns says. “We can’t communicate effectively if the other person is solving an immediate problem; that’s like trying to coach your Little League baseball player when they are up to bat at 3 and 0. You can’t learn anything when your body is on high alert.”
Resolving a conflict must start with validating the other person’s feelings. It is essential to engage strong listening skills and acknowledge their concerns regardless if you agree. “You have to let them know that you have heard and you understand that it is very upsetting to them. Their experience is neither right nor wrong. It is an experience they are having based on many different factors. Some of which might have nothing to do with the existing conflict,” Kerns says.
Once you validate their concern, you next look for an invitation to pursue. The consent needs to come verbally and nonverbally. “When we are in execution mode, we do not slow down enough for effective communication. We can check it off our list that we communicated. We educated and informed, but we probably did not communicate,” Kerns says.
Before moving forward productively, all parties need to be willing to engage and resolve the problem. Kerns warns it can take time. It is easy to see what the resolution should look like, but getting there is what takes the most time.
Repair critical in relationship
Most companies fail at the repair part of the three R’s. It is easier to ignore a conflict or walk away from conflict than to take the time or effort to repair. Yet, the rupture or communication conflicts are what stifle a team and eventually a hog operation or company. For those businesses that fail to do a thorough repair, the 30% of a good relationship shrinks, limiting success and most likely costing the operation good employees.
On the whole, two skills lacking across all industries, but in particular in a volatile industry, is self-awareness and the capacity to tolerate discomfort gracefully. Repair involves having uncomfortable discussions and the chance of losing more of the relationship. “Based on past personal experience, sorry is not enough, and the focus is on the pain rather than rupture,” Kerns says.
“It is a normal human response to flee or ignore pain,” Kerns says. “But confidence in a relationship and successful communication is directly related to our capacity to tolerate and normalize difficulty, discomfort and relational rupture. These events are an invitation to building a secure relationship, not cues for severing it.” People need to practice relationship, rupture and repair within the system. And the culture needs to promote healthy rupture and healthy repair.
In her role, Kerns sees consistent conflicts that impact the successful running of operations at three levels — barn, ownership and external.
At the barn, communication ruptures take place due to inappropriate expectations and insufficient tools. Typically, people from very diverse populations, with radically differing educational backgrounds and technical expertise, are attracted to physical labor — barn work.
One thing the majority of pig caretakers share is they prefer working with animals over people and paperwork. They are the executors and implementers as opposed to studiers and planners. But expansion, the legal liability posed by bad employee relationships, and compliance now require more advanced communication, documentation and relationship skills of barn workers.
“We have increased expectation, but we are not being realistic about looking at where the pool of labor is,” Kerns says. “We do not understand that we have to teach people to think differently and be aware of their own responses in a very unpredictable situation, working with live people and live animals.”
As a result, individuals drawn to more physically demanding jobs and selecting to work with animals over people are now asked to meet high expectations in a fast-paced environment requiring quick decisions and reactions while complying with administrative rules and industry regulations. This environment is ripe for communication ruptures because employees are ill-equipped to deliver what our industry is now requiring.
Employee personal development needs to include education on understanding how the brain works under stress and pressure, the proper steps to planning, and ways to promote stewardship through a sense of belonging.
Kerns says training on how the brain works in specific communications situations, what motivates people to participate and what alienates people gives individuals powerful tools for their job and life. It also creates self-awareness about work and personal relationships. “Our mistake is we treat people like labor,” Kern says. “We do not understand how people work.”
She notes that historical knowledge about employee motivation still funnels down to three compelling factors that motivate people to stay in systems. It comes down to the ABCs:
■ Autonomy — I have the opportunity to manage my work versus being managed myself.
■ Belonging — Someone in my work situation cares about me.
■ Competencies — My employer invests in me, and I can contribute value based on my expertise.
Furthermore, a training program involving an explanation on how the brain works helps individuals to understand the process their mind goes through during different circumstances. When working with groups, Kerns includes a discussion on functions of three parts of the brain:
■ The part of the brain that works urgently when it is ignited.
■ The pre-frontal cortex of the brain that focuses on execution and goals.
■ The mediator (or middle part of the brain) that allows humans to pause before acting and mediates between stimulus and response.
“Most people without awareness, which is the middle part of the brain, move from stimulus to react or stimulus to act. These were the components of the first human’s primitive brain. As our brain evolved, we began to access the middle part of the brain that allows us to solve problems, to plan, to slow things down enough that we can preserve and promote relationships that will preserve and promote us,” Kerns says. “It allows us to get a little distance so we can empathize and strategize.”
As a result, this type of training gives people access to different parts of their brain, making them more aware, and the power to detach when they have a strong reaction or in a dangerous situation.
In general, Kerns says we make mistakes when “leading means doing.” The steps of identifying the problem and working toward the desired results are skipped. It is simply a quick reaction to the problem. The middle ground to reflect or understand does not happen.
For example, an employee is often late to work. The solution is simple — one warning, two warnings and three warnings. However, did you miss out on a good employee because you didn’t step back and ask why that employee is always late? Is it a problem of logistics, attitude or deep resentment? It does not excuse the employee’s behavior, but managers often hand out a warning without asking the “why,” which could mean losing a valuable employee or brushing over a bigger team problem.
The only time businesses or hog operations should shortcut problem-solving is if there is urgency. Even after the urgent matter is handled, the team still needs to go back to the slow problem-solving process. “Most people think conflict resolution is about educating and informing about expectations. It is just not,” Kerns states.
“We are in communication culture crisis — headed for an inevitable collision,” she says. “Remember that young people think communication is delivering their feelings, thoughts and opinions via text message. Owners and managers think communication is about informing and educating regarding expectations — basically telling people what to do and how to do it. We have two different groups of people with two different goals and radically different expectations about the relationship. This is not communication; it is culture collision.”
Communication ruptures at the owner level are typically driven by execution mindset: “I can do it myself” or “I can supervise myself.” Most owners are mavericks or pioneers of the hog industry. Surviving the pig farming roller coaster involved grit, determination and innovation, working by themselves, or with family members or an extremely small team. Handing over control to the next generation or team in the barn is not natural.
“What made owners successful required a different type of temperament than what will continue to build their operational capacity. Operations now require the skills of an educator, psychologist, counselor, facilitator, motivator and system specialist. We have an unrealistic expectation of these larger-than-life owner personalities who made their future as outliers in our industry,” Kerns says.
“These pioneers differentiated themselves by innovating, rejecting traditional approaches to production. They did not focus on compliance because they didn’t have to at the time. Instead, they were iconoclasts, breaking out of systems, driving themselves in the ground, holding themselves more highly accountable because they were supervised,” she says. “Yet, we are asking these owners and 50-plus-year-old managers to lead people who have to work with systems and processes and deal with compliance. That is a problematic expectation.”
The model for the pork business is execution and performance. These factor are outcomes, not drivers, and are a result of the team’s behavior capacity, Kerns says.
Repeatedly, owners will pay for someone to fix the conflicts but fail to follow through to continue to create that culture by empowering internal leadership or holding internal leadership accountable. It is all about maverick leaders asking the next generation not to do it the way they did it in the past, but to be consistent, accountable and reliable, and document, teach, oversee and broker relationships. “At the ownership level, I see owners reinforce that managers and employees need to execute. We have to start focusing on culture, communication and building behavioral capacity because it is not a technical competency that breaks the system, it is behaviors,” Kerns says.
She adds, “We reject the idea that we should ‘parent’ employees — that the younger generation is often scapegoated for lack of motivation, lack of ownership, quality-of-life focused. But the truth is, our schools, under pressure, have replaced education with technology and meeting performance metrics. Math, science [and] measures rule over psychology and creative capacity building. Character, stewardship, morals, creativity, innovation — those things are practiced, mentored and reinforced in a relationship — not in sessions focused on technical competency.”
Kerns says, “Ironically, we are asking farm leaders to fill in what families and schools may have overlooked in deference to performance. We are asking farmers to be family. But first, they have to figure out how to do that in their own families. Frequently, on farms, we see that family equals work. This creates incredible pressure and conflict that ripples throughout the operation.”
Family members working together on the farm create a unique set of conflicts. During consultations, Kerns sees a big breakdown in family communication. “When you have a family team communicating, you are not only dealing with business problems, you are dealing with family problems. So if there is a breakdown in family communication, it holds hostage the business communication.”
Many employees will take advantage of the situation when family members fight. What tends to happen in conflicts is ally vs. the enemy. “When I feel bad, I want everyone to feel bad for me about this issue. We tend to treat work like war,” she says.
Businesses that involve family members working together can be challenging, but it also can be rewarding. Kerns knows firsthand because it is the model she and her husband, Joseph, follow with their team. Although there is a lot more to manage, it can magnify the culture and a sense of “family” in business.
Overall, Kerns says on the barn level, it is about creating awareness and the sense of working within a team or family. On the ownership level, it is about generating clarity, consistency, reliability, transparency and fidelity, and operating by the established values. “How the ownership behaves is how they have relationships internally, and that extends to the relationships externally,” she notes.
External relationships come in different forms in the pork industry — consultants, industry partners, government officials and consumers, along with those against animal agriculture or “resistant stakeholders.”
A common rupture in external relationships is defensiveness. Anyone opposed to raising animals for meat or raising them differently than the norm is seen as the enemy. Repairing a rupture involves validation and invitation — the opposite of defensiveness. The industry response is to make the farmer the hero and the resistant stakeholder the villain. “Those roles only exist in fairy tales,” Kerns says.
Repairing a rupture with an anti-meat organization or resistant stakeholder involves sitting through the discomforting dialogues and inviting the other side to voice their concern.
Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that repair may not be possible. To successfully repair a rupture, the other side must permit a repair. Consequently, the industry needs to look at building relationships with more open-minded parties where ruptures can be repaired like our community.
For instance, Kerns says problems like unpleasant odors in the air can be resolved locally. A disconnect between consumers from animals or the meat they consume can be solved by spending time with children in the local grade school or building a relationship with grocery stores. “We can convert a culture, but it happens just like ministry — have a relationship with one human being at the time, changing their experience because experience trumps belief,” she says.
Moreover, influencing people is about making them feel safe. People must feel safe to change their belief, she says. There is an illusion in the industry that effective communication is some magical gift, but it is about slowing down and learning to practice being human.
“If we really want to learn how to be human, we will not treat conflict as the outlier,” Kerns says.
“We will not identify it as a problem. Remember that farming is one of the most difficult vocations to practice; the whole show is characterized by unpredictability,” she says. “How do we deal with the fact that we are humans working in unpredictable situations, with unpredictable animals, with people of unpredictable backgrounds, in unpredictable weather, with unpredictable markets? How do we be human in that system? How do we become the best repair agents? We have to see unpredictability, ruptures, as opportunities and invitations instead of as deficiencies and severances.”
Bottom line, we are called, in work and in life, to learn and practice how to be human beings. We are not performance machines, Kerns concludes.
“The question for our age is how do I manage myself while managing systems and processes that connect and support additional human beings and systems?” she says. “I see some of the most compelling heroes in our industry trying to meet the needs of their people, animals and families suffering from incredible anxiety. We have to acknowledge this is not corporate America. We have to treat our work as a vocation and learn how to be very excellent at being human and helping other people be a human being.”
Editor’s note: For more than 20 years, Karen Kerns has shared her knowledge of technical and non-technical communications to assist pork producers, universities and organizations.