Teaching tips: Part 1

Employees need to understand the reasons behind protocols, and benefit from ongoing training, reinforcement and evaluation. ( John Maday )

During a recent conference, a veterinarian who works on a large dairy calf ranch provided an example illustrating the importance of employee training. Periodically, the crew would notice outbreaks of diarrhea in young calves. Upon closer evaluation, the veterinarian found the outbreaks correlated with times when the employee who usually mixed the milk replacer was off duty. The replacement staff member it turned out, was using a different mixing process, pouring an entire bag of replacer into the water rather than adding it gradually. Consistency in mixing, temperature and time of delivery is critical for calf health and performance, the veterinarian stressed.

Terry Smith, PhD, founder and CEO of Dairy Strategies LLC, and former faculty member at Cornell, Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin, says livestock farms often experience a relatively high level of employee turnover, and operate several shifts, and inconsistent performance can result. The veterinarian can provide consistency through regular training and reinforcement of standard operating procedures.

Once employees see the management and the veterinarian committed to helping them succeed and developing a better workforce, Smith says, employees typically embrace the opportunity and respond positively to the training they receive.

Bob Milligan. PhD, Senior Consultant, Dairy Strategies, LLC and Professor Emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, agrees that ongoing employee training is critical for achieving that consistency and adherence to protocols. He adds that employee education that provides individuals with a path for career development and advancement not only reduces turnover, but also helps a farm recruit the best employees. Milligan says in some of his client operations, after instituting comprehensive training and opportunities for advancement, managers have found they are able to hire a higher class of employees, including individuals previously considered unattainable or overqualified.

Phil Durst is a senior educator with Michigan State University who works with beef and dairy operations on personnel and other management issues. He stresses that employees are closest to the cattle and work with them on a daily basis. Their decisions can have profound effects on herd health and performance. Clearly, the owner’s best interest is served when those employees receive ongoing training, regardless of their experience level.

Begin with “why”

We’ve all heard that it is important to explain why employees should perform specific tasks in a particular way – why they handle cattle quietly, why they give injections in a specific spot or why they maintain specific health records. Now though, Milligan says we have begun to better understand why “why” is so important. Simply put, if an employee does not understand the reasons for performing specific tasks, they do not, in fact cannot, have any emotional commitment to the task.  

Citing a book titled “Start with WHY: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” by Simon Sinek, Milligan says when leaders talk about or explain “what” the farm does, employees process what is said in the part of the brain called the neocortex. The neocortex is responsible for rational and analytical thinking and language. The “what” is understood here, but it does not drive behavior.

When leaders talk about and explain “why” they do things, their employees and customers process what is said in the limbic brain. This part of the brain is responsible for all of our feelings such as trust, loyalty and commitment. As a result, the limbic brain is responsible for human behavior. The “why” resonates in this part of the brain. Only when “why” is clearly articulated can employees experience the emotions that lead to commitment to the vision and passion for the success of the business. Milligan says. “Only the WHY resonates where there will be an emotional reaction.”

While it is clear that explaining “why” is critical in employee training, managers and trainers often find it difficult, and again, Milligan says brain function helps explain the reasons. The limbic brain, he says, has no capacity for language. Language is controlled solely in the neocortex. “One result is that we human beings have trouble describing feelings. Try explaining to your spouse why you love her or him.”

Helping employees understand “why” involves articulating a vision for the business and their roles in the business, and that vision involves goals beyond producing milk or beef, generating profits or earning a paycheck. The vision instead should create emotional connections to goals such as keeping animals healthy and comfortable, protecting the environment, ensuring food safety and building a favorable work environment.

Durst says veterinarians, with their knowledge of the scientific aspects of livestock production, are in an ideal position to help employees understand the “why” behind protocols and management practices.


Part 2 of this series covers learning styles, evaluation and feedback.