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What do my behaviors communicate in tough times?

Bob Milligan for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 August 2017

Let’s think about what is happening today in the production agriculture industry:

  • Prices are low for almost every commodity, although some have shown recent improvement.

  • It is hot, making work difficult and tiring.

  • Some have had too much or too little rain (or both).

  • We are in the midst of unprecedented levels of political turmoil.

This puts many producers and leaders in a very difficult place:

1. You are feeling disappointment, frustration and even fear.

2. It is crucial you don’t allow these emotions to “infect” your employees and your beef production business culture.

This position of the required behavior being very different from your current emotions is a common leadership situation. Perhaps the easiest example to relate to is a manager of a baseball team in a 10-game losing streak.

The manager is feeling all of the emotions many of you are feeling: disappointment, frustration, even fear (for his or her job). The manager’s behavior with the players must, however, not reflect these emotions. He or she must be positive and encouraging to keep the players from becoming too “down” and help them remain confident and focused.

How we react – behave – in response to our emotions is a choice. We must not react instinctively. We must have thoughtful responses to these emotions so our behaviors are the best for the business. Following are three suggestions for responding as an effective leader.

Don’t ignore your emotions

Recognizing and dealing with the emotions of disappointment, frustration, even fear is difficult. First, recognize they are real and should not be ignored; you certainly should not feel guilty about or be afraid of emotions. They are real; they are you. You need to have someone or several someones with whom you can openly share and discuss your feelings.

This person may be a family member or friend, but that is not always the best choice. I suggest a confidant.

A confidant is an individual with whom you can “let your hair down.” You can express and discuss your true emotions. You can brainstorm and discuss thoughtful behaviors. You can think through the real or root causes of your emotions and why you are feeling the way you are. You can discuss appropriate thoughtful behaviors.

Whomever you choose, make certain your discussions are proactive and constructive. The discussions should focus on understanding and solutions, not on complaining. “Pity parties” rarely release stress or provide solutions.


Your employees are feeling many of the same emotions, though perhaps not as acutely. They care about you, the business and their future. Like the manager of the team on a 10-game losing streak, you must be positive and encouraging to keep your employees from becoming too “down” and help them remain confident and focused.

Why is encouragement so important? “Encouragement is to raise confidence to the point where one dares to do what is difficult.” This quote from emphasizes the importance of encouragement to our own and our employees’ confidence, focus and performance, especially in difficult times.

Effective and heartfelt encouragement will go a long way to prevent your emotions from “infecting” your workforce and your culture. Look for appropriate places to express encouragement:

  • “I know we can do this.”
  • “I have confidence in you.”
  • “I know this will turn out well.”
  • “You can do it.”

Positive feedback

Ken Blanchard, management consultant and author, encourages supervisors to “Catch your employees doing something right.”

  • Wow. That sounds simple.
  • Wow. It is so difficult.

Providing high-quality feedback is even more important in difficult times – and is even more difficult to provide as you are not feeling particularly positive yourself.

The education, training and experience of almost everyone reading this article has focused on animals and crops. We become outstanding at identifying problems – something that is or will become wrong – and solving them.

It is only natural to use these same skills and experiences when working with employees. These skills and experiences do serve us well in being proactive in identifying and solving employee problems.

Employees, however, need more. Remember, we humans can think, speak and feel. Employees desperately seek and respond positively to quality positive feedback, recognition and rewards.

To be most effective, positive feedback must be specific. Rather than just saying “You are doing a good job,’’ use the “catch your employees doing something right” to be specific: “Great job Jack, I noticed you going out of your way to remove the leaves that had blown into the alleyway. Thank you for following through on our emphasis on attention to detail.”

A final and difficult note on positive feedback. Research is very clear: Almost every human being – every employee – appreciates quality positive feedback. The challenge is: Many do not show that appreciation. Instead, they mutter something like “It’s OK,” or “It’s just part of my job.”

Do not be deterred by these responses. The best way to overcome these responses is to be very specific, completely genuine and by developing a habit of giving positive feedback and recognition.

A concluding comment

Remember the manager with a team in a 10-game losing streak. Like that manager, it is your responsibility to keep your team from being infected by negative emotions.  end mark

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

Bob Milligan
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