Conflict in the Dairy Isn’t Always Between the Boss Cow and the Timid One

Several calls and consultations revolved around conflict between owner/managers and employees (even family members as employees).  Some stressors have been working on the owner/managers that cause them to see even small issues about employees as reasons for major confrontations.

How these conflicts are resolved can make the difference between whether an employee stays on the farm or leaves.  If an employee has historically been an excellent employee and now decides to leave, this loss can be costly in many ways.  There can be lost productivity, overtime for other employees, and costs involved in hiring replacements.  Not all of these are out of pocket but still are costs to the farm.

How can you handle conflicts on your farm?  Conflicts have several common characteristics:

  • Issues are often not well articulated or clearly understood.
  • People involved in conflict don’t always take time to understand the other’s position.
  • When people are in disagreement, discussions are frequently heated, tense and aggressive.
  • Conflicts are often avoided, not discussed and not resolved.
  • Conflicts are sometimes resolved by one person ‘giving in’.
  • The effect of conflict on relationships is frequently negative.

There are many conflict resolution models, but here are some common strategies for dealing with conflict.

  • Remain Calm – Don’t argue or make accusations.  A temper won’t resolve an issue.
  • Listen Actively – This is a skill that requires practice.  Make sure you understand what is being said by the other party.  Try to learn what is important to them about the issue.
  • Use Direct Communication – Honestly state your feelings and what you want or mean.  Avoid manipulating or withdrawing.  Focus on the issue or behavior at hand, not the personalities involved.
  • Be Persistent and Consistent in Your Behavior – Clearly communicate what you mean and mean what you say.
  • Be Confident – Be confident in your ability to deal with others and remember your rights as the employer.  This doesn’t always mean, “It’s my way or the highway.”

Step# Method Specific Action

  • Step 1  Problem identification: Identify each person’s reasons or motives for the conflict.
  • Step 2  Problem diagnosis:  Look at all the factors in the conflict.  Look at personality styles of the people involved.
  • Step 3  Generate alternatives for resolution:  Come up with different ideas to improve or change the behaviors that caused the conflict.
  • Step 4  Decision making:  Compare the ideas and decide what provides the best alternative.
  • Step 5  Tactical planning:  Brainstorm and write a specific action plan to go with the decisions made in Step 4.
  • Step 6  Implementation: Carry out the plan and follow up regularly.

Sometimes even these strategies and steps don’t resolve the issue.  It might be because the personalities of the people in conflict add to the complexity of the issue.  Then it may be necessary to call in a mediator to help guide the discussion.  A mediator is not one to decide the issue and declare a resolution, however.  A mediator should be able to help clarify what is causing the conflict, better define the conflict from each party’s perspective, and guide the parties to a resolution that is based on positive outcomes – not just power of one individual over another.  A desirable resolution is one that has each party understanding the other’s position, determining where they can agree and what common ground they can use to move ahead.  It also strives to avoid creating further conflict by a feeling that there was a ‘winner’ and a ‘loser’ in the resolution.  ‘Winners’ and ‘losers’ are more likely to lead to more conflicts in the future as they try to even the score.  An excellent source for more information about conflict management is an on-line book written by Gregario Billikopf, University of California Extension.  The book is titled, Party Directed Mediation, and is available at without cost.  You can read individual chapters or download the entire book if you desire.

Aerica Bjurstrom
Agriculture Agent
UW-Extension Kewaunee County

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