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Longevity in the workplace: Does it hinder growth?

Bob Milligan for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 April 2017

As with many questions, the answer is: “It depends.” We start our investigation to understand what it depends on by looking at two hypothetical but realistic employees.

  • John has worked on the ranch for 20 years. During his first two or three years, he mastered the skills required in the position. He continues today in the same position and using the same skills.

  • Paul has worked for a different ranch for 20 years. He also mastered the required skills in the first two or three years. Today, he remains in the same position because the ranch has had no opportunities for promotion. Paul, however, has learned new skills and has been rewarded with increased responsibility (and compensation).

Let’s analyze the situations of these two long-term employees:

  • John is still implementing processes that were cutting-edge around the turn of the century (2000). John is often considered a “good employee” because he does his job, does not create problems, has a reasonable compensation package and is unlikely to leave until he is ready to retire.

    At this point, John and employees like him are comfortable. However, typically, they are not especially motivated or engaged. Unfortunately, he is no longer an asset to the ranch as his skills are becoming increasingly out of date.

  • Paul, on the other hand, has increased his value to the ranch and is likely motivated and engaged. Paul will continue to become a more important asset to the ranch due to his increasing responsibilities and his tremendous experience.

    Paul’s growth is likely a result of a combination of his self-motivation and encouragement from ranch leadership.

It is easy to conclude John is a longevity challenge, perhaps even a disaster, while Paul is a longevity success. I am reminded of the question: “Does the employee have 20 years’ experience or one year’s experience repeated 20 times?” The answer here would be that John has one year’s experience repeated 20 times while Paul truly has 20 years’ experience.

Let’s look outside of agriculture. John and Paul are “first-line employees,” meaning they do not supervise other employees; they do the work of the business. McDonald’s almost certainly has more first-line employees than any other business in the world.

McDonald’s has always viewed its excellent training as one of its competitive advantages. In recent years, they have highlighted training and learning in their recruitment.

While writing this article, I stopped at a McDonald’s on my way to visit a client. Under my breakfast, the placemat was completely focused on the educational opportunities of working at McDonald’s.

Included was the tagline “Creating Opportunities Together,” congratulations to two local winners of McDonald’s National Employee Scholarships and several statements extolling the educational opportunities from working at McDonald’s.

From analyzing the situations of John and Paul and the actions of McDonald’s, we can conclude that a, if not the, key to our longevity question is that longevity is valuable as long as the employee continues to learn and is motivated and engaged.

The remainder of this article contains three ways to ensure that your ranch capitalizes on the longevity of your employees:

1. Understand motivation. For your ranch to succeed in producing high-quality beef, you must understand the biology of beef production. To retain employees and capitalize on their longevity, you need to understand motivation. Modern research on human behavior (psychology) and brain function (neuropsychology) sheds great light on motivating individuals and a workforce.

The answer is surprisingly simple but challenging to implement. As with many animal and crop research results, the answer forces us to abandon generally accepted ways of thinking. The answer is: People are moved to be productive, engaged and fulfilled when their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence are fulfilled. The three needs are:

  • Autonomy: Our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our own actions.

  • Relatedness: Our need to care about and be cared about. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.

  • Competence: Our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.

Three points related to John and Paul jump out from these descriptions. Paul’s continuing learning and growth has certainly enhanced his competence and thus his motivation. Paul’s increasing responsibility has increased his perception that he has choices and, thus, his autonomy and motivation.

Both, likely, have high relatedness, but interestingly, John’s relatedness comes from being “comfortable” and thus does not necessarily increase his motivation.

2. Professional development and career orientation. Employees, especially long-term employees, seek career enhancement by contributing to the ranch and its growth. They also seek to grow personally and in their career.

To meet the needs of the ranch and the long-term employee, you need to create a mutually beneficial partnership with the employee. This means you need to think about more than short-term training. Answer these questions:

  • How can his or her strengths and experiences best contribute to our ranch today and in the future?

  • What can the ranch gain from these strengths and experiences?

  • How can the ranch best contribute to the employee’s continuing growth and career advancement?

Employees will be more likely to stay when they perceive that the position fits well with and advances career aspirations, they see interest in their career advancement, and the ranch has career advancement possibilities and career-oriented compensation packages.

3. A “STAY” meeting. An important component of successful longevity is an opportunity to discuss future opportunities with employees.

To ensure this happens, I suggest an annual meeting, perhaps in late fall or early winter, with the objective of discussing future opportunities for increased responsibilities and maybe even a promotion and to develop plans to prepare for the advancements.

This meeting is often called a “STAY” meeting; its desired outcome is an increased interest by the employee in staying with your ranch. Specific outcomes of the meeting could include updating the job description to include the increased responsibilities, a professional development plan and an increased understanding of future opportunities at the ranch.

As you finish reading, write down two or three actions you will take to ensure you have more employees like Paul and fewer like John.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. Email Bob Milligan

Bob Milligan
  • Bob Milligan

  • Senior Consultant
  • Dairy Strategies LLC
  • Email Bob Milligan

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