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Monitor your behavior in busy times

Contributed by Bob Milligan Published on 24 June 2020

Author note: This article was originally written to focus on the busy times of planting and harvest. With the continuing crisis created by COVID-19, it now applies to us all.

Human beings are unique. We are born with certain tendencies and natural reactions. You may well have completed leadership or personality profiles to better understand your tendencies and natural reactions.

As we mature, we learn that our natural tendencies, reactions and behaviors do not always serve us well. We learn to react thoughtfully rather than instinctively. Managers who are naturally very controlling (coercive and authoritative leadership styles) learn that there are times when listening and coaching are more important than their natural reactions. Managers whose instinctive reaction is to lead only or mainly by example (pace-setting leadership style) learn that they first need to teach, coach and engage their employees.

The challenge is: When we get busy and stressed, we tend to revert to our natural tendencies, reactions and behaviors – we become more instinctive. A great example is the owner of a business whose natural tendency is to be very analytical and to carefully research and study every decision. When this owner’s business faces challenges, the danger is that the owner will isolate himself or herself in the office analyzing every decision, and the excessive need for analysis paralyzes the ability to make decisions. He or she has fallen into the trap of overusing his or her natural tendencies when under stress.

In busy times and stressful times – like now – make certain you are not falling into this trap of overusing your natural tendencies, reactions and behaviors. Two suggestions: First, take the time frequently to reflect back on your interactions with people to determine that you have not fallen into this trap. Second, focus on using our often-discussed listening tactic of pausing a second or two before responding. This will provide the time for a more thoughtful, less instinctive response.

Let’s pursue this challenge further by better understanding stress. Stress is necessary for normal functioning. Stress enables us to focus, to excel, to succeed. The challenge is: Too high levels of stress lead to lower productivity, frustration, irritability, increased susceptibility to sickness, deteriorating interpersonal relationships and even thoughts of suicide.

The question, then, is what can be done in the current environment to reduce stress or keep it from reaching unproductive levels. We discuss two ideas:

  • Do not let your concerns and frustrations “infect” your farm business culture.

  • Establish time management practices that reduce stress.

Do not let your concerns and frustrations ‘infect’ your farm business culture

You – leadership – establish the culture. These difficult times create a very difficult situation for you:

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

  2. It is crucial that you not allow these emotions to “infect” your employees and your farm culture.

“Infecting” your farm culture will only add stress to you and to your workforce. Your required thoughtful behaviors must, therefore, be very different from your current emotions. This is a common but challenging leadership situation.

Perhaps the easiest example to relate to is a manager of a baseball team on a 10-game losing streak. The manager is feeling the emotions many of you are feeling – disappointment, frustration, even fear (for his job). His behavior with his players must, however, not reflect these emotions. He must be positive and encouraging to keep the players from becoming too “down” and help them remain confident and focused. You are in a situation like the baseball manager.

It is your responsibility as the farm leader to ensure your behaviors and attitudes contribute positively to your farm culture. Remember, how you react – behave – in response to your emotions is a choice. You must not react instinctively. You must have thoughtful responses to these emotions so your behaviors are the best for your workforce and your farm.

Establish time management practices that reduce stress

Farmers are passionate about what they do. In most times, the stress created by this passion creates positive outcomes of focus, enthusiasm and stamina. Now, in troubling times, the positive stress that enabled the hard work and long hours working on the farm is tempered or even displaced by negative stress created by the current uncertainties. Making the situation worse is the natural tendency of passionate people to work harder and longer when times are tough.

Stated simply, instead of creating positive stress, the farm may now be producing negative stress levels. The simple solution of working less is likely not feasible. That does not mean, however, that nothing can be done to relieve the stress.

Here are some ideas:

  • A Harvard Business Tip of the Day titled “Establish an Evening Routine to Put the Workday Behind You” addressed the challenge of leaving work behind when the workday ends. First, the article suggests, end the day by doing something positive, perhaps a task then not left until tomorrow. Then do a specific action that signifies the end of your workday (or at least for now). Whatever you choose should be like employees checking out at the time clock. The idea is: This task will become a mental signal that the workday is over.

  • Make certain you have a clear plan for each day. Clarity increases focus; uncertainty and indecision increase stress. Developing this plan could be part of the end-of-day routine mentioned above.

  • Take a couple short breaks each day (also, don’t skip lunch). Go for a walk, put your head down, or enjoy a drink (milk). Research shows that we accomplish as much despite taking the time for a break.

A final comment

Recognizing and dealing with the emotions of disappointment, frustration, even fear is difficult. First, recognize that these emotions 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 one or more individuals 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 solutions. 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.

Whoever 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.

The uncertainties and stress of this COVID-19 crisis may make this an ideal time to find a confidant. end mark

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

This also appeared in his LearningEdge Monthly newsletter.

Bob Milligan
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